A student recently asked me:
“What does it feel like for you as a BJJ Black Belt to roll with someone who doesn’t understand the flow?
Me: “Have you ever danced with someone who doesn’t want to dance? It’s kind of like that except that I can guide them into my rhythm but they cannot force me into theirs…”
So what is this ‘flow’ you speak of? I know it all sounds a bit mystical and reminiscent of “the force” in Star Wars or Neo in the Matrix. Well it’s none of that and all of that…
So to begin may I offer you the red pill or the blue pill? You take the blue pill, you stop reading this article and go on with your training and you believe what you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole really goes.
The word flow means, moving along in a steady, continuous stream. I think of ‘flow’ as being in the optimal state of consciousness for any activity. Let’s relate it to Jiu-Jitsu, but it could really be any aspect of life. In BJJ most of us equate flowing as something less than “live rolling”. Something resigned for the weak and injured. I’ve heard others even joke that flowing is a contest to see who stops flowing first.
To even begin to understand what “the flow” is, lets first examine what a grappling match even is? You have two people that make an agreement that they’ll participate in a physical contest under specific rules with a restart happening when one person taps or submits to a technique. So my goal is to submit you and your goal is to submit me and neither of us want the other to do that to us! The first question beginners ask me is, how hard should I be grappling? Should I be going 100%? So my response would be, “Does 100% mean…100% speed and power? Or are you referring to 100% efficiency and technique?”
To really understand the flow you have to completely let go of the idea of relying on strength and athleticism. Yes, these are important physical attributes but you don’t want to build your Jiu-Jitsu game on pure physicality. Think of it this way, if you have to rely on strength, what happens when you get tired and you have no strength left? The same thing applies to the guy who relies purely on speed and movement. If you run out of gas, you’re screwed!
For us to delve into the flow we must first create a framework. Think of putting together a puzzle. The best way to start is to create the frame. Once you have the frame it’s then about filling in the pieces. In our Jiu-Jitsu framework we will insert what I believe to be five foundational elements. When you begin to understand and practice these elements you will be on your way to achieving flow on and off the mats.
The first element of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is “technique”. We hear this word thrown around all the time in Jiu-Jitsu. How many times have you heard an instructor yell, “come on use good technique”. But what does that even mean? The word technique by itself is a pretty vague concept. But when you dig into the definition of the word ‘technique’ the concept becomes clearer. The word itself means, “…a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something, as in the performance of an artistic work…” The key words that jumped out for me were: skillful, efficient, performance and artistic. Do these words sound at all like good Jiu-Jitsu to you?
Lets take the first two words, skillful and efficient and apply them to a Jiu-Jitsu move. If we were going to apply an arm-bar from the mount in a ‘skillful and efficient’ manner, we would want to first know all the steps to the move. Depending on how we execute the arm-bar from mount, it typically requires 4-5 movements that happen rather quickly. For example, 1. you control the arm, 2. post the far-side leg, 3. slide the near-side leg over the head, 4. sit back, 5. and elevate your hips. In that version we have five steps. So the technique is composed of five movements that are applied rapidly in a continuous motion. If we take away any of the five steps what are we left with? We are left with a terribly sloppy arm-bar!
So think of ‘technique’ as following a set of pre-set steps. But that’s only half of the story. Remember our two other words? I will refresh you… “performance and artistic.” That means that the moves are not just done in a robotic manner, they are performed in an artistic fashion (remember it’s called martial ARTS). Think of the art part as moving with style and grace. The word style means, “having a distinctive appearance.” This is were you get to own the move and put our own personal stamp on it. Maybe you are built a certain way and you make your own personal modifications to the move. The fun part about Jiu-Jitsu is you get to express your own personal uniqueness though the expression of movement.
The word grace means, “refinement of movement”. So don’t think of just doing moves, perform the moves. Do them as if everyone IS watching. So how do you develop good technique? First you must get a good, mental understanding of the framework of the move. So we know the arm-bar has five movements. In order to make the move skillful and efficient we have to drill it under a variety of circumstances. For example: with resistance, without resistance, with various roadblocks, etc. This will allow us to memorize the steps while allowing us to be adaptable at the same time. It’s important that we don’t just drill pre-set patterns over and over. This can cause us to get too anchored to one method and one pathway and when things don’t go right we can’t follow the rhythm of the moment.
Another great way to develop exceptional technique is to break down the various movements that make up a move and practice them individually with or without a partner. You can do these in the form of cyclical flow drills that connect one move to the next. The great thing with this method is that you don’t need a partner. By practicing and drilling the movements you begin to develop greater sensitivity and awareness around the move. This level of mastery will translate to a greater sense of flow when you apply the move during randori.
The second element of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is “timing”. This is another word that when left alone can be a little unclear. The word timing means, “…control of when something should be done”. The key word is control. When you don’t have control you become a victim to timing. So instead of you controlling the moment, the moment controls you. Let’s look at the arm-bar from the mount again. If I just try to grab your arm and arm-bar you it’s quite difficult to do. Why? Because nobody will let you just grab their arm. Think of the simple concept of putting your arms on the floor from the mount and driving your chest into their arms and face. How will they respond? More than likely they will push upwards with their arms and body. We know that if we continue to push down we now begin to control the speed and direction of the arms with our chest. We are no longer a victim to timing and we can control the speed and rhythm of the arm-bar. Lets take a look at the word rhythm. Synonyms for the word rhythm include: beat, cadence, tempo, and yes timing. When we further dig into the origin of the word rhythm, we find that it comes from the latin word rhythmus which means ‘measured flow or movement’. There is also mention that rhythm or the latin rhythmus relates to the phrase ‘to Rhein’ or ‘to flow’. (The word ‘Rhein’ comes from the word ‘Rhine’ which refers to the European river.) Now you can see how timing and rhythm work together to create the flow.
Music is also great way to improve rhythm and timing. I recommend using ambient music when you’re drilling and rolling.” Ambient music is a genre of music that puts an emphasis on tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. Brian Eno one of its pioneers says, Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” I like ambient music because it lyrical free and it doesn’t force any agenda on your state of mind. When you play ambient music when you’re grappling, you can move to whatever rhythm makes sense versus the music forcing you down a certain physical and emotional path. I like heavy metal and hard rock, and rap as much as the next guy but you have to remember your rolls will be a reflection of the environment you’re in. Music is a vibration and if the vibration you’re listening to while you train is anger and violence, what will your rolls be like?
When we talk about how music can improve performance we would be remiss not to mention “The Mozart effect.” A search on google and you find that, “The Mozart effect can refer to: A set of research results indicating that listening to Mozart’s music may induce a short-term improvement on the performance of certain kinds of mental tasks known as spatial-temporal reasoning.” So what is spatial temporal reasoning? Another quick search and we learn that ‘spatial temporal reasoning’ is, “the cognitive ability to picture a spatial pattern and understand how items or pieces can fit into that space.” People that have this ability can visualize how things are put together and can be manipulated into different patterns. Think of putting together a puzzle! Does this sound at all like Jiu-Jitsu? I’m not saying that listening to Mozart will necessarily improve your Jiu-Jitsu, I am saying that the environment you practice in will most definitely effect your Jiu-Jitsu.
Our third element of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is “Leverage”. The great philosopher, scientist and engineer of classical Antiquity Archimedes of Syracuse said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Archimedes elucidated the mathematical concepts of levers, and fulcrums. He describes this very concept in the latter quote. You can think of leverage as giving you power when you have no power or don’t want to waste your power. Think of the simple concept of breaking a stick into two pieces. You can place the stick with one end in each hand and hold it away from your body and with all your power try to break it! If you are strong enough it will break. If you however grabbed each end and used your knee as a fulcrum it will break much easier. That’s the power of leverage!
I believe that leverage is the great equalizer against a stronger more powerful opponent. We use leverage all the time in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and grappling. It’s how we get takedowns, sweeps, escapes and submissions. Let’s use our earlier example the arm-bar again. When we apply an arm-bar we want to control all three joints: the shoulder, elbow and the wrist. Having all three joints creates a longer lever which gives us a mechanical advantage. Think about the definition of a lever, “…the device preserves the input power and simply trades off forces against movement to obtain a desired amplification in the output force.”
Let’s picture a teeter-totter or see-saw on the playground. If you are on one side and you weigh 150 pounds and your friend is on the other side and weighs 250 pounds what will happen? You will be stuck in the air and they will be on the ground. How could you lift them up without using more energy? This is what Archimedes figured out. The longer the lever the more power you can create without using additional energy. So if you extended your side of the teeter-totter you could now create enough force without additional work to lift your friend.
In Jiu-Jitsu terms, the closer the fulcrum (your hips) are to your opponents shoulder the greater the effort force you can create. Just like the teeter-totter, our arm-bar becomes more powerful when we have a longer limb (lever) to control. When we begin to apply this ancient principle to Jiu-Jitsu we become a more efficient practitioner. We begin to see the use of this all the time in our training. Here’s a great exercise to understand how this principle applies to your Jiu-Jitsu game. Write down as many submissions, sweeps and escapes as you can and identify where the lever and fulcrum is used and how you can improve your use of this concept in your game. Also, by not muscling moves and relying on strength we are better equipped to flow with our partner versus fighting against them regardless of their intention.
Our fourth element of Jiu-Jitsu is “The Collaborator”. At the end of the day you can’t do Jiu-Jitsu without a partner or collaborator! Think of practicing Jiu-Jitsu as being two artists with one giant canvas (the mats). Together you’re creating a masterpiece… or a just a hot mess! But to have a true collaboration, not just any partner will do. Have you ever tried to train on a grappling dummy? They’re a fun tool, but they’re just that… a tool. They don’t move, they don’t offer resistance and they definitely can’t flow and there’s very little you can collaborate on together. On the the other end of the spectrum, having a wild, crazy partner with no control doesn’t serve you either.
Think of the word reciprocity. A quick internet search and we find that reciprocity means, “…the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit”. The key words are “exchanging” and “mutual”. Both words imply the giving and receiving of a gift. When you both contribute you have a true collaboration. How does all this relate to grappling? It’s important to look at every training session as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself and others. When you slap and bump hands this is an opportunity to get to know someone on a very sacred level. The mere act of choking and arm-locking each other requires a high degree of trust and control. The type of trust, by the way you don’t see in almost any other area of life. Groups that trust each other to such a high degree usually use words like, brotherhood and sisterhood not opponent.
Every time you roll you have an amazing opportunity to get to know someone else’s sense of balance, timing, emotional state, energy level, fears, victories, defeats and yes…Jiu-Jitsu. If however, you are of the kill or be killed…crush everything in your path mentality then that’s exactly what you’ll get. By the way, you won’t have many training “partners” and surely no collaborations. Have you ever heard about the law of the farm versus the law of the jungle? On the farm the farmer plants his seeds and provides them with all the elements they need for survival: water, earth, sunlight, air, etc. Because he takes care of his seeds he yields a great harvest! In the jungle the strongest animal survives. If you become the guy or girl that eats lower belts for lunch, then eventually you will have no one left to train with and you will surely reap no harvest. If you truly want to reach a state of flow in your training or life, then it starts with your own mentality about how you approach your partners (interactions). Remember it’s about building, not destroying and collaborating not conquering. You have to let go of the very idea of being against them but rather for them in the first place. Because remember it takes two to tango!
The fifth element of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is, “the martial artist”. The phrase martial artist has always intrigued me. The word martial is Latin in origin and means, “arts of mars”. As in the Roman god of war, mars. In Japanese it is often defined as, the way of the warrior. All of these definitions illicit this perceived dichotomy of ‘war and art’. We think of war as violent, morbid and unsavory. Art on the other hand is the opposite; creative, beautiful, inspiring. How can these two worlds possibly coexist? Not only can they coexist, but they were cut from the same cloth. Think of the Chinese symbol of the yin / yang. One half of the circle is black and the other half is white and within each circle exists its opposing color. What the yin / yang symbol teaches us is that their cannot be darkness without light and light without shadow. These seemingly opposing forces do not exist in spite of each other but rather to serve each other. The dichotomous relationship is really more perceptual and not real. In other words, the only reason we see them as separate is because we choose to see them that way. “If you change the way you look at things, the way you look at things changes.”
If you really want to understand what the flow is you have to own up to being a martial artist. Not a hobbyist, not a weekend warrior, but a true martial artist. This doesn’t mean you sell all your stuff and become wandering monk. Actually quite the opposite. When we enter a martial arts classroom that is when we rid ourselves of our outer appearance. We may all walk in as nurses, moms, dads, plumbers, doctors, football stars…but when we enter the matted area we all become martial arts students. In fact, there’s little difference other than maybe gi colors and belts. It’s important to consider our own mindset when we enter the mats. I personally like to bow as a reminder to clear my calculator… and to free my mind to be focused on the present experience.
If you get to Jiu-Jitsu and your still focused on something negative that happened at work you’re not going to have a great Jiu-Jitsu experience. Remember, we defined the flow as the “optimal state of consciousness for any activity.” If we want to reach a high state of flow, we need to enter training with a clear slate. If we have a lot on our mind, how can we expect to be open to new learning? When you bow take a few deep breathes to remind yourself to be fully present for your Jiu-Jitsu experience. I have a simple little mantra that I like when I train and it goes like this, “I am open to all realities.” Bruce Lee famously said, “Have no way as a way, have no limitation as a limitation.” To truly have, no limitation as a limitation you would have to be open to every possibility as opposed to being closed minded. When you remove all of the conditions, you are free to be and do however you choose. If you always pass the guard to the left and suddenly you’re forced to go right…what usually happens when you are forced to go outside your comfort zone? Most people at the minimum hesitate or full out resist. This is the opposite of the flow!
Recently I was grappling with a student and we got near the wall and he said lets stop we are near the wall! I said no, let’s keep going in spite of the wall. I then used the wall to climb my legs up and take his back. When he said stop, it was an interruption in the flow. Why did he say stop? Because the environment changed which made him uncomfortable. This got me thinking and I started to grapple in a matted corner. Instead of resisting this environmental change I fully embraced it. What I found was that by having four separate points of leverage (two walls, the floor and my partner) the reality changed dramatically. Being open to all realities means that you are open to every experience. Whether it’s a self-defense altercation, a crazy beginner, a tough wrestler, or two additional walls…you are open to every possibility. By doing so you will begin to engage and expand your senses.
Think about your five primary senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. That’s all of them right? Well those five are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s some of our additional senses: sense of pressure (different from the sense of touch, but more like the pressure of body weight like in side control), pain has it’s own receptor systems within the body, proprioception or where your body knows where one limb is in relationship to the rest of your body (it’s like when you close your eye and touch your nose or when you’re grappling and you’re like where’s my leg in reference to my arm, etc.), equilibrioception or a sense of balance or up and down (think inversions, takedowns, etc.). By understanding how to use all of our senses we can apply them to our grappling. By limiting one sense we can expand our other senses. For example, if you close your eyes when you grapple you are forced to expand your kinesthetic awareness. Without sight, your sense of touch, body weight, proprioception (limb awareness) all become vital tools. You can further expand these senses just by first understanding that they even exist then becoming more conscious of them when you are training.
How to expand your senses on the mat!
- Eyes closed grappling – by closing your eyes you expand your sense of touch and kinesthetic awareness.
- Limiting use of limbs – When you limit the use of one limb you are forced to utilize your other limbs in a different manner. This forcing you outside your comfort zone and your brain begins to create new pathways. You can easily practice this by tucking one hand (or both) into your belt when you grapple.
- Using the walls – position your grappling match near a matted wall, or even better in a corner with two adjoining walls. You begin to approach leverage and creativity in a whole new way.
- Practice applying pressure – Start in various positions (side control / mount / back etc. and see how to apply the most pressure and what parts of your body are used. For example, how to maximize the use of pressure and also relieve the right amount of pressure when needed too.
By understanding the five elements of Jiu-Jitsu we begin to create a solid framework to begin to utilize the flow on and off the mats. I think of the martial arts as human alchemy. Like the alchemist who turned base metals into gold… the martial arts removes the veil that we are simply base metals and allows us to be the gold we truly are which puts us in a state of flow!