This is the final post in a four-part series about the roles that the fight or flight response and the state of flow respectively play in jiu jitsu (see here, here, and here for the first three posts). In the earlier posts, I sketched out what the fight or flight response is, why it comes so naturally to us, and the various ways it can inhibit one’s performance on the mats while at the same time putting one’s training partners in unnecessary danger. In this post, I want to turn my focus to the state of flow. As I mentioned in the introductory post, we owe the contemporary usage of the term “flow” to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—who was primarily interested in what enabled people to experience happiness while at the same time performing to the best of their abilities. By conducting a global survey of thousands of people from a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds, and areas of expertise, Csikszentmihalyi was able to start piecing together the basic elements that need to be in place in order for humans to maximally excel at what they do (whether they’re rock climbers, violinists, artists, or surgeons) and to enjoy what they’re doing.
What he found was that experts and non-experts alike tend to share a common experience when they’re performing at their best—the experience of flow. To be “in the flow” is to be in a focused state that seems at the same time effortless and maximally efficient. When we are experiencing flow, every action seems to flow (hence the term!) into the next without deliberate thought and intention. To be in the flow is to be completely engrossed in what one is doing. When we’re in this state, we experience time dilation (that is, the passing of time slows down or speeds up, depending on the context) at the same time that our auto-pilot takes over. Not only does this state enable us to achieve peak performance at what we’re doing, it is also a state that brings us pleasure and enjoyment.
So what are the conditions for achieving this state of flow? According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are nine elements that need to be in place in order for an individual to be in a state of flow—namely, “challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, paradox of control, transformation of time, loss of self-consciousness, and autotelic experience.” To be in a state of flow is to strike an ideal balance between one’s skill set and the difficulty of the task at hand. If one is either too skilled or too unskilled (or the task is too easy or too hard), then one will not experience flow. In this sense, flow is relative both to the individual and the task. The same task can lead to flow for one individual or boredom (or frustration) for another. So, flow will be different for each of us, depending on our own unique skill set and the different tasks that are in front of us at any given time.
One of Csikszentmihalyi’s primary goals was to understand what makes people happy. On his view, there are five basic elements when it comes to the conditions which tend to foster happiness. First, we need to be focused intensely on the actions we’re performing. Second, this activity needs to be something we chose to perform. Third, the actions we perform need to be neither too easy nor too difficult. Fourth, the actions we’re performing need to have a clear objective. Finally, the objective is one that will provide us with immediate feedback. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, when these conditions are satisfied, we are most likely to experience both happiness and flow. Ned Hallowell—a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist—explains the importance of flow in the following way (see here for details):
Flow naturally transforms a weakling into a muscleman, a sketcher into an artist, a dancer into a ballerina, a plodder into a sprinter, an ordinary person into something extraordinary. Everything you do, you do better in flow, from baking a chocolate cake to planning a vacation to solving a differential equation to writing a business plan to playing tennis to making love. Flow is the doorway to the 'more' most of us seek. Rather than telling ourselves to get used to it, that's all there is, instead learn how to enter into flow. There you will find, in manageable doses, all the 'more' you need.
Hopefully, it’s clear already why flow is important to athletic performance—especially when it comes to something like the gentle art of jiu jitsu. Indeed, I believe the failure to achieve flow explains why so many white belts burn out—e.g., they are exposed to live rolling with more experienced grapplers too soon, which leads to frustration. I also believe the lack of flow helps explain why upper belts in unsuccessful gyms lose an interest in jiu jitsu—e.g., because the gym has a difficult time retaining students, the upper belts are insufficiently challenged by their training partners and they become bored. In either case, the lack of flow takes people away from jiu jitsu and towards other things they could be doing with their time, energy, and money.
In order to facilitate happiness and flow on the mats, students of jiu jitsu need to have the aforementioned five elements in place—which is something their instructors are partly responsible for facilitating. A good instructor will ensure that students are learning techniques that are appropriate for their level and training with comparably skilled partners. By being mindful of these two aspects of learning and training, instructors make it more likely their students experience flow, which will in turn make it more likely the students enjoy what they’re doing. It’s a win-win for instructor and student alike. The instructor retains students—which is good for business—while the students enjoy each step of their jiu jitsu journey.
I also think flow is crucial for maximizing one’s performance on the mats—whether in class or in competition. Unless and until students are able to flow roll—which will look different depending on the skill levels of the people rolling—they won’t be able get themselves in “the zone.” For in jiu jitsu as in life more generally, flow is essential. For those of us who have experienced what Scott Devine (a third degree black belt under Grand Master Relson Gracie and the namesake of the academy where I train) calls the “pure joy of the roll,” we know what it’s like to be completely lost in the moment while doing jiu jitsu. These are the epic moments when focus narrows, time seems to stand still, and our movements seem to flow from within in an effortless yet efficient manner. These are the moments that keep many of us coming back for more despite the aches and pains, the injuries, the conflicting personalities, and the occasional aggravations of gym politics. It is the pursuit and realization of the flow that drives and sustains us.
Rather than succumbing to the fight or flight response and over-doing it or freezing up altogether, when we are in a state of flow, we strike the correct balance in what we’re doing while training. To be in a state of flow on the mats is to overcome one’s primal survival responses and get lost instead in the moment. During a flow roll, one can feel “at one” with one’s partner. The give and the take is effortless. The goal is neither to win nor to impose one’s will. Rather the goal is to be lost in the moment. The roll itself is its own reward. Winning is subsidiary.
Now obviously, the competition mindset is different. After all, at least one reason for entering a completion is to try to win. But there are other reasons as well—challenging oneself, finding out where one stands relative to one’s peers, etc. Either way, I believe that unless and until one has experienced the flow in practice, one won’t maximally benefit from competing. Indeed, if one isn’t experiencing flow in practice, one will be unlikely to stick with jiu jitsu long enough to enter competitions. And when one enters a competition prematurely—that is, before one has learned how to flow roll with partners of a comparable skill level—one will end up frustrated more often that gratified by the outcome come competition time.
Or, at least, that has been my own experience. I entered my first few competitions with the wrong attitude and mindset. It wasn’t until later that I feel like I got the most out of competitions (even in defeat). Before I could excel at or enjoy competing, I first needed to train in ways that facilitated the right mindset. In this respect, flow is similar in many respects to what the Japanese call mushin (the state of “no mind”). Consider, for instance, the following remarks by the legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō in The Unfettered Mind:
The mind must always be in the state of 'flowing,' for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man's subconscious that strikes.
Given the historical roots of jiu jitsu in Japanese martial arts (going back to the days of the samurai) it is perhaps unsurprising that flow plays in important role both when it comes to how much pleasure one gets from jiu jitsu and how well one is able to perform. From the outset, jiu jitsu is best done subconsciously. Rather than giving in to one’s baser subconscious drives—e.g., succumbing to the fight or flight response—one ought to let go of one’s worries and fears and embrace the moment for what it is—an opportunity both for growth and happiness.
So, try to let go of your ego. Relinquish your desire for conquest. Focus your attention on the task at hand with narrow blinders and get lost in the give and take of the flow. Both you and your partners will be better for it. Once you have learned how to roll with your training partners with an unfettered mind, you will finally be ready to test your skills against strangers. Until then, look inward rather than outward. Take a deep breath. Remember why you’re doing this in the first place. The goal isn’t to win—although that’s nice—the goal is to learn and progress while at the same time enjoying each step along the way in your own jiu jitsu journey. Embrace the flow and good things will follow. Struggle against the stream with a bad attitude and you will burn out before your journey has even really begun.
p.s. For more on so-called “flow psychology”, check out the following resources:
- The TED Talk given by Csikszentmihalyi about flow.
- This in-depth two part series by Matty Ford on the science behind flow (here and here).
- This interesting talk by Steven Kotler—the author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.
- This piece from Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sports Psychology by Arthur Marr entitled, “In the Zone: A Biobehavioral Theory of the Flow Experience.”