How to Safely Train Heel Hooks and other Advanced Techniques (Rice)
Fight or Flight vs. The Flow (Part 2 of 4)

Fight or Flight vs. The Flow (Part 1 of 4)



This is the first installment in a three-part series about the psychology of jiu jitsu—which will be one of my first attempts to wed by own professional interests in philosophy and psychology with my love of jiu jitsu.  More specifically, I will focus on two very specific aspects of live rolling that I find particularly interesting and important. In the first two posts, I will focus on the well-studied and well-understood fight or flight response (see here and here for details)--both what it is (Part 1) and how I believe it negatively influences what people experience and how they perform when doing jiu jitsu (Part 2 and Part 3). 

In the final post (Part 4), I will focus on the nature and benefits of being in a "state of flow"—that is, being lost in the moment such that one finds "an intrinsic reward for participation in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1977). When people experience the state of flow, there is an optimal balance between how challenging they find the action being performed and their simultaneous self-awareness regarding their own skills and limitations  with respect to the performance of this action (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Sometimes flow is experienced in isolation (e.g., gymnastics) and sometimes it is experienced in situations directly involving others (e.g., jiu jitsu). In both cases, not only does flow improve one's performance, it also enhances one's overall happiness. During the past 30+ years, flow has been correlated with a narrowing of focus or attention  (Webster, Trevino, and Ryan, 1993), improved learning (Canter, Rivers and Storrs, 1985), an increased sense of playfulness (Webster and Martocchio, 1992), improved voluntary control (Ghani and Deshpande. 1994), and increased positive subjective experiences overall (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). In short, flow is good for you (and it can be difficult to achieve).


Unsurprisingly, flow is one of the more central concepts of positive psychology--a relatively new but rapidly growing field of psychology that focuses more on mental well-being and flourishing than abnormality, illness, and disorder (see here for a nice introduction).  But because the fight or flight response is far more common than flow in jiu jitsu among lower belts (especially during live training), it will serve as the starting point of our present investigation. Exploring both the nature and benefit of flow will have to wait until Part 4. The role played by the fight or flight response in jiu jitsu is a more pressing issue. So, it will be our focus in Part 2 and Part 3. But before we discuss what I take to be the negative role that the fight or flight response plays in jiu jitsu, we first need to get a bit clearer about precisely what it is, why we experience it, and why it's often bad for us (both physically and psychologically)--which is the subject of Part 1.


For starters, we owe the notion to Walter Bradford Cannon—a professor of physiology and chair of Harvard Medical School back in the early 1900s. Cannon is one of the 100 most cited psychologist of the 20th century--so, as far as psychologists go, he's a luminary of the field. One of his key areas of research was his ground-breaking work on the fight or flight response. On his view, the fight or flight response is a physiological and psychological reaction to perceived threat—a response that prompts either a struggle for survival (if necessary) or a hasty retreat (if possible). When we feel like we’re in danger, it increases activity in our sympathetic nervous system—which in turn primes us to either stand our ground or flee. This increased activity in our autonomic nervous system also leads to a neurochemical cascade that includes norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol, and adrenaline—among a host of other things.

The fight or flight response is associated with a number of additional physiological responses as well (see the bottom of this illustration for just some examples):


These are just some of the physiological events that are associated with the fight or flight response (for more on the fine-grained neuro-chemical details, see here). By improving focus and attention while at the same enabling more blood to reach the major muscles, the fight or flight response puts us in a prime position to do what is necessary to survive an immediate threat. It’s no small wonder, then, that it served our evolutionary ancestors well.

Another important feature of the fight or flight response that merits closer consideration is the fact that it is largely (if not entirely) automatic. It is more like a reflex rather than the product of our calm and reflective capacity for rational thought and action. As such, like a number of other evolutionarily advantageous patterns of thoughts and behaviors, it, too, can misfire. Not only can the fight or flight response be engaged in situations that don't require it, but some individuals end up being physiologically stuck in a near constant and chronic state of fight or flight--which produces a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety (see here and here for details).

As such, the fight or flight response is a mixed blessing.  It's a great automatic reaction to have when one's life is genuinely in danger--which is pretty rare these days for most people--but it can produce unnecessary stress when we come to constantly feel as if we were under siege (even when the perceived threat or danger isn't real). So, in general, the less we experience the fight or flight response, the less stressed and anxious we'll be (and hence the more happiness and flourishing we will experience). And unsurprisingly, what's true of life is true of jiu jitsu.

So, in Part 2, I will connect what we've discussed here about the fight or flight response specifically to jiu jitsu and suggest that this constellation of physical and psychological events can drain the fun out of rolling if they're not kept in check. As we'll see, it's not that the fight or flight response needs to be harnessed or redirected--rather, it needs to be dampened down or avoided altogether before it ever gets us in its grips (for by then, its too late to reel ourselves back in). Having discussed the negative impact that the fight or flight response has on one's jiu jitsu development, I will then go on in Part 4 to discuss the need for grapplers to learn to go with the flow while training rather than fighting in vain against the stream.


Canter, Rivers, and Storrs (1985). Characterizing user navigation through complex data structures, Behaviour and Information Technology, 4(2), 93-102.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1977). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, Jossey Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow, Basic Books.

Ghani, J. and S. Deshpande (1994). Task characteristics and the experience of optimal flow in human-computer interaction, The Journal of Psychology, 128(4), 381-391.

Webster J., & Martocchio J. (1992). Microcomputer playfulness: development of a measure with workplace implications, MIS Quarterly, 16, 201-226.

Webster, J., Trevino, & Ryan (1993). The dimensionality and correlates of flow in human-computer interactions. In Computers in Human Behavior, 9(2), 411-426.



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