What Does It Mean To Tap Out? (And When Should You?)

Combat sports are designed to push people to their limits, and every fighter dreams of victory. But sometimes an opponent puts you in a hold you can’t escape, and it’s a choice between giving in, or risking an injury. 

What Does It Mean To Tap Out?

When a fighter taps out, they’re submitting to their opponent, and ending a fight. Tapping out is often the literal act of tapping either the hand or foot, although you can verbally tap out if necessary.

Find out everything you need to know about tapping out with this guide.

What Does It Mean To Tap Out?

When a person ‘taps out’ while engaging in martial arts, or other forms of fighting, it means that they are forfeiting the match. This is generally done because they’re in pain, and because they know they can’t come back.

When a person taps out, the match is over, and their opponent has won. 

How Do You Tap Out?

Tapping out involves literally tapping an opponent, the mat, or anywhere else around you, using your hand. It’s a rhythmic hand movement, and acts as a shorthand for ‘I’m done’.

When the referee sees a person tapping out, they immediately stop the match.

If it isn’t possible to use the hand, then sometimes fighters will indicate that they’re tapping out using the foot. This sends the same signal to the referee, and only tends to be used when the hands are out of action. 

Tapping out became a common hand signal because it’s easy to do when a fighter might have limited movements. In the middle of an MMA fight, you might not have the breath to say ‘I quit’.

Or, at least, not loud enough for anyone to hear you. But most people can make a tapping out movement in some way, no matter how tired they are, or what uncomfortable position they might be in. 

Why Do People Tap Out?

If you don’t compete in any form of martial arts, you might wonder why people choose to tap out, rather than pushing through and hoping for a win.

While some fighters will make the call not to tap at when they’re struggling, most prefer to surrender and avoid injury.

MMA and other forms of combat sport can get brutal. All fighters want to win, but most experienced fighters recognize that it isn’t worth the risk of injury.

After all, if you get badly injured in one fight, then you have no chance of winning another. It’s better to tap out and take the loss, than to keep on pushing through and risk concussion or broken limbs.

The reasons for tapping out and submitting are generally divided into two categories: joint locks and chokeholds. In a joint lock, the opponent has the fighter in a hold that might overextend the joint.

By tapping out, the joints are protected from what could be irreparable damage.

In a chokehold, the amount of blood getting to the brain is limited. If this goes on long enough, the fighter will pass out. This is often known as being put to sleep.

Losing consciousness is a serious issue, and not just a small rest a body can quickly recover from. The effects of a concussion can last for days, and there is a chance of incurring a brain injury.

To avoid losing consciousness, a fighter will tap out. Tapping out from a chokehold means a fighter won’t wake up in the hospital wondering what happened. 

Experienced fighters will recognize that it’s often better to submit when in a dangerous position. Previous fight experience means they know what it’s like to fall unconscious, or to overextend a joint.

It isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s seriously painful. Part of being a good fighter involves knowing the difference between a tricky hold you can escape, and one that you need to tap out of before things get worse. 

Is Throwing In The Towel The Same As Tapping Out?

The term ‘throwing in the towel’ is used to indicate a submission similar to ‘tapping out’, but the two terms aren’t exactly interchangeable. ‘Throwing in the towel’ is more commonly used in combat sports with a cornerman, or second.

In these cases, it’s the responsibility of the cornerman to call for submission, rather than allowing their fighter to risk an injury. This might happen when the fighter is unable or unwilling to tap out, and the cornerman finds it necessary to intervene. 

What Combat Sports Use Tapping Out?

Tapping out is used in all combat sports to submit, although the methods of going about it might be slightly different. However, tapping out is a generic term, and you don’t have to use your hands in a literal tapping motion.

In some combat sports without holds, a fighter might tap out by saying ‘I’m done’, or another form of verbal indication.

Why Do Some Fighters Not Tap Out?

Some fighters refuse to tap out because they see the action as dishonorable. They don’t want to submit, so they keep pushing through, at which point it may be necessary for the referee to intervene.

These fighters would rather be seen as going down fighting than being forced to submit. 

Although some fighters won’t tap out because they think it’s dishonorable, many think it’s disrespectful to refuse to submit. It also puts the responsibility on the opponent to know how far they can push.

Joints have been broken because a fighter refuses to tap out, so the opponent tightens a hold, thinking it’s okay. For many, this won’t be seen as the clean victory they want.

And sometimes fighters have refused to tap out, suffered a serious injury, and gone on to win a disputed victory on points.

Not to mention, as proud as an opponent may feel to go down fighting, there’s always the issue of whether they’ll get up again.

Final Thoughts

A fighter taps out when they use their hand or foot to indicate submission from a hold they can’t escape. Tapping out is done to prevent injuries such as broken bones, but exactly when a fighter chooses to tap out is their own decision.

Christopher Anderson
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