The Psychology of Submitting

Fightland Blog

By Mike Bebernes

Liz Carmouche and Meisha Tate were in the exact same position. Both women found themselves flat on their backs, arms stretched out to the side in the grip of Ronda Rousey’s famous armbar.

Scientifically, the reactions in the two women's bodies were the same. An arm bar can shred ligaments and snap bones. The body has nerve endings called nociceptors that detect this damage and send a signal to the brain, where it is registered as pain. “Pain is biologically wired to be a defense mechanism for survival and against injury,“ said Dr. Eddie O’Connor, a sports psychologist who works with elite athletes to train them how to understand and tolerate pain at the Performance Excellence Center in Grand Rapids Michigan.

Mixed martial arts is unique in sports in having a major percentage of its outcomes decided by participants who make the choice to either endure pain and risk injury or protect themselves by tapping out. The science of how pain works within the body is widely understood. What is less clear is what happens inside the mind in the decision to fight through the pain or submit to it.

In her match, Carmouche tapped out within seconds of Rousey locking in the arm bar. Tate, on the other hand, refused to submit until Rousey had bent her arm 90 degrees in the wrong direction, tearing every ligament in her elbow.

“It always comes down to the at end: How much is worth it? The athlete has to be in touch with that,” says O’Connor. “When the pain shows up, your mind automatically says, ‘Stop, rest, go away,’ because you instinctively want avoid it. The mentally tough athlete has to make the choice to say, ‘I am willing to feel this pain in service of the win.’”

Sometimes that dedication results in a win. The most famous example may be Matt Hughes fighting through the rear-naked choke of Frank Trigg only to pick Trigg up, slam him to the ground, and eventually get the submission win himself. All fighters stuck in a submission move make a value judgment. The psychological factors that lead someone to accept the injury risk are unique to the individual.

“It’s not only mental toughness but some other type of drive or need that they have a much more complicated psychological issue,” says O’Connor. “The people who identify with their sport and winning, they’re getting something out of it that is very important to their sense of being. So then, therefore, it becomes worth it.”

From a layman’s perspective, the choice to sacrifice long-term bodily health for a single victory may seem illogical, but it would be a mistake to assume that the decision-making process for a typical person is comparable to that of an elite athlete, according to Dr. Traci Statler, who has done clinical research on pain-tolerance techniques for athletes. “I don’t think athletes are normal people,” she said. “You’re not going to get a normal population. There’s a sort of self-selection that goes into it before they get into the ring.”

A certain level of pain is inherent in any sport, especially those built around combat. “You have to recognize before you begin that dealing with pain is part of the equation,” says Statler. Both Statler and O’Connor stress the importance of understanding the difference between general pain that is endemic to the sport and acute pain that is an indicator of possibly severe injury. “Those who understand the sports biomechanics, functional movement, they’re going to understand 'If I’m got, I’m got,'” says Statler.

The choice to submit is never an easy one when weighed against the hard work and ambition of high-level athletes. Those who do make that decision focus on priorities outside of the immediate desire to win. That's a lesson taught by Anthony Brasi.

“Your vocabulary word for the day is ‘surrender,’” Brasi tells his class of introductory Brazilain jiu-jitsu students at the Renzo Gracie Fight Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y. This is not a sentiment one would expect from a practitioner of a sport as violent as MMA, but as Brasi tells me later, he falls into the camp of fighters who are willing to concede victory rather than suffer an injury. “[Fighting] is a sacred, sacred experience,” he says. “You’ve put tens of thousands of dollars into your training. You have eaten properly, so why damage the inherent structure of your skeletal system just for a victory? But I have friends of mine who would laugh in my face and say, ‘Fuck you, I’ll never tap.’”

Brasi believes that proper training and understanding of how the body works will lead fighters to choose to protect themselves over risking injury. Less technical fighters, he says, are more likely to try to power through.

Another fighter willing to submit is David Pareti, who lost the championship bout in the North American Grappling Association World Championships in April 2012 when he tapped out to a triangle choke. “When you get to the point of being positioned for a loss, it says something about you as a person,” Paretti says. “There’s a mentality in our sport that if you give up, you’re weak. It has to do with keeping your ego in check. There’s nothing wrong with tapping.”

The decision, according to Brasi, comes down to what the fighter ultimately wants out of MMA. In essence, it rests on the difference between fighters and martial artists. Those who seek fortune, fame, or the satisfaction of victory will fight on. Those who put more value on the pursuit of perfecting their craft will relent. A quote by Brasi from an online motivational video lays out his perspective:

“When I surrender my ego to you and I say, ‘You’ve killed me. I’m dead,’ a piece of you dies each time. But it’s the piece of you that lives in fear.”                       

Check out this related story:

The Fight of the Mind