Seeking The Flow State Through Jiu-Jitsu
by Rodney King
One of the (unconscious) attractions to jiu-jitsu is that it offers anyone the opportunity to experience flow. I say it is ‘unconscious’ for two reasons. Firstly I don’t think people intentionally go to jiu-jitsu to find flow. Most people go to jiu-jitsu to learn a martial skill, as a vehicle to help them get in shape, an opportunity to breakout from the mundane of life, to be personally challenged, and because it looks like a load of fun (which it is). In the process of doing all of this they accidentally (but not always) stumble upon the flow experience.
The 2nd reason that the flow experience is unconscious to most, is that unless you have engaged in experiences in your life that required you to be fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, and the enjoyment in the process of an activity — most people who spend their day in an office cubicle, moving from one mundane experience to another — will likely never experience flow. When a person has a flow experience on the mat (even though most don’t know what it is or called), it makes them feel great, and as such they never forget it. It keeps them coming back to jiu-jitsu to have that same experience all over again. Jiu-jitsu therefore, offers anyone, no matter how mundane and boring their life is, the opportunity to experience the optimal human flourishing experience of flow.
Why Putting the ‘Flow’ in Jits Matters
If flow is a natural outcome of jiu-jitsu, what would happen if people actually came to the mat because of it? In other words, rather than simply coming to jiu-jitsu for the obvious reasons of learning how to protect yourself, get in shape, have fun (which will happen anyway), what would be the outcome if doing jiu-jitsu went beyond the standard motivations, with a focus rather on human flourishing? Rather than allowing the accidental experience of flow to happen, what would happen if it was one of the main reasons to be doing jiu-jitsu in the first place? What would those consequences be for your everyday life?
Although for people, the immediate experience of flow is what is most notable, flow’s after effects are equally important. While flow might happen in the present moment, the characteristics of the experience, rewires the brain through a process called neuroplasticity. This rewiring then changes how you experience the world. Research has show that flow makes people feel more cheerful. They feel strong, active, focused, creative, and satisfied. It has also been shown that flow improves self-esteem after a flow experience. Crucially people who experience flow more often, have higher self-esteem overall. In addition one of the active ingredients of flow is the development of focus. People who are better able to focus have been shown to be able to regulate their emotions more effectively. Flow experiences makes you more productive, and enhances learning. As a coach, this is what I personally focus on when I am teaching jiu-jitsu (it’s partly selfish too, as I want to achieve the same benefits).
Making Jiu-Jitsu Flow Conscious
According to the leading scholar of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, there are eight ingredients required to invoke flow. Just looking at the eight ingredients below, one can hardly argue that jiu-jitsu seems perfectly built for flow to take place. Each one of these ingredients are potentially present every time you step onto the mat. But firstly you need to know what these ingredients are. Secondly you need to make the experience of them in your jiu-jitsu intentional. Thirdly you need a good coach who can guide you through achieving flow.
Ingredient 1: There are clear goals every step of the way.
If you just floundering around on the mat, with no clear direction, you will be just floundering around, with no end goal. Without first having clear goals, flow just wont happen. For example, if I am trying to pass someones guard, I need to have a clear game plan on what I am trying to achieve. I need to know the passes, how to play them off each other, and choose the appropriate time to apply one of them.
Ingredient 2: There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
If I use my guard passing example again, thankfully there is an opponent I am grappling against that gives me immediate feedback to my actions. As I attempt to use a specific pass, how my partner responds (i.e., feedback) determines if the pass I am using will work, or if I require changing to an alternative pass (i.e., actions).
Ingredient 3: There is a balance between challenges and skills.
This is something I talk a lot about on the mat with my students. It’s pointless if I want you to pass my guard, but then I make it so difficult for you, that you simply cannot make it happen. I am a black belt, and as such, I am likely going to be able to keep a white belt from passing my guard. While that white belt may know the appropriate techniques, if I decide to stop him from passing, I can. Not only doesn’t my student learn anything from this kind of exchange, I also make for damn sure he never experiences flow.
The same also applies to students rolling against each other. While there is one thing giving another person a challenge, it’s completely different if you ensure they can never achieve any success. The goal really is to balance the challenge of not simply allowing a person to pass your guard, but still allowing the person’s current skill level the opportunity to be successful in making the pass in the end. In my studio we call this PC-Flow (Positional Control-Flow). Students are encouraged to flow roll, but they can only hold or stop a specific pass (and or position) from happening for a limited amount of time (e.g., 5 sec, 10sec), and then they are required to either allow the pass ( and or move) to happen. In this way, while there is a challenge, every person is offered the opportunity of what I call ‘achievement certainty’. Again, if I want not only my students to get better at jits, but also experience flow, this approach is crucial.
Ingredient 4: Action and awareness are merged.
Jackson and Csikszentmihaly note in Flow in Sports: “when you feel at one with the movements you are making, you are experiencing…the merging of action and awareness. Instead of the mind looking at the body from the outside, as it were, the mind and body fuse into one.”
This again, is something I talk a lot about in class (and in my corporate workshops). Part of my understanding of this is both from my own personal experience of jiu-jitsu over the past two decades, and my academic studies. I would argue, that this is one of the hardest skills for students to learn. We have been so conditioned to be in our heads, and to objectify the body, that we no longer trust our body as a natural intelligence. By far the biggest thing I see every day on the mat is how disconnected most people are from their bodies. The evidence of how out of sync their minds are from their body is evident in how people struggle to complete even the simplest of movement patterns. This disconnect from the body, is in my opinion, one of the major reasons most people don’t experience flow either in their life, or on the mat in jiu-jitsu.
The neglect of the body as both instrumental in lived experience, and as a valid source of knowledge in the world, goes as far back in Western thinking as Plato’s Phaedo. Plato saw the body as negatively interfering with the search for true knowledge. The body, he claimed, interrupted our attention with all kinds of passions and fancies. In other words, the body distorts reality through our sense organs. In this view, the body is merely a tool in the service of our intellect. This way of thinking about the body held powerful sway for centuries in Christian philosophy and later in modernist philosophies such as idealism. It can also be seen in the influence of seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes’ philosophy of separating the thoughts of the mind from the actions of the body (known as Cartesian dualism) greatly influenced Western philosophy, resulting in the dominant idea that our mind is distinct from, commands and functions independently from our body. Viewing mind and body as two different ontological entities not only penetrated the world of philosophy and science, it had a profound effect on how we view the world, how we learn, and in turn how we are educated. As Nguyen and Larson in their piece Don’t Forget About the Body have argued that the separation of mind from body, and the over-reliance on cognition, starts at an early age and is reinforced within our traditional educational pedagogy, where the body is seen “as little more than a subordinate instrument in service to the mind”.
Jiu-jitsu if approached correctly, can offer a person the opportunity to once again trust their body as a natural intelligence, and rather than seeing mind and body as separate, experience them as interrelated. Bottom line, flow is simply not possible if the mind is treated separate from the body, and vice versa.
Ingredient 5, 6,7, 8: Distractions are excluded from consciousness. There is no worry of failure. Self-consciousness disappears. The sense of time becomes distorted.
In a world filled with bi-polar distractions, with no one seemingly being able to stay focused long enough on a single experience, this is an absolute crucial skill to develop. As a coach, I am fortunate enough to draw on my academic experience, where my current PhD research is in mindfulness-in-action. I would suggest, that Csikszentmihalyi’s 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th ingredients are very much in line with being mindful (and also highlights that while being mindful is an aspect of flow, they are not the same thing).
As Kabat-Zinn has noted, being mindful is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” In this sense, being mindful in the roll aids in keeping a person focused in the present moment, and in doing so keeps them away from the distraction of outcome, as well as away from concerns with right or wrong, past mistakes or future expectations. It is crucial to understand that the fear of failure is hinged to expectations. The worry of failure only arises when the mind is focused either on the past or the future. When there is only what is, the very moment of experience, self-consciousness disappears. The roll becomes less about time constraints, and rather the unfolding experience moment to moment, and as such time becomes distorted. What was a 5-min roll, now feels like seconds.
The fantastic thing about mindfulness is that it is a skill that can be practiced anywhere, from washing the dishes, to standing in line at the store. Practicing mindfulness not only will aid in reaching flow more frequently, but equally help you be more resilient in life.
Flow Jits Comes Down To Four Things
While there is a lot to the psychology of flow, here are four important tips when invoking flow through your jits experience:
- You need to be doing jits for the autotelic experience. In other words, it needs to be intrinsically fulfilling. If you doing it for external rewards, such as fortune or fame, you likely will never experience a flow state. A focus on external rewards is often accompanied by the worry of failure, and self-consciousness.
- You must roll with a clear goal. From working on a specific part of your game like passing the guard, to achieving a the same submissions from multiple positions. Your jiu-jitsu abilities and the opponent who challenges you, need to be evenly matched for flow to take place. If you go up against someone far better than you, and they won’t give you the opportunity to play the game, you will get frustrated, which by its very nature switches off the opportunity for flow to emerge.
- You need to be fully present, and deeply focused on the task at hand. Don’t try to multitask, have no interruptions, keep your mind on the roll. While it’s crucial to have a goal in each roll, your focus should be primarily on the process of reaching that goal, and not the outcomes you want from reaching the goal. In other words, focus on playing the game, and not the glory that might come from success.
- Finally, you need to train in an Academy that advocates jiu-jitsu as being more than simply about winning, and who you can (or cannot) tap out. I call this ‘Life-Jits.’ While the physical skills developed on the mat are important — how that experience impacts your life positively off the mat — is far more important in the end. Well at least I think so.…although many people may disagree with me, because at times it seems all people want to talk about these days is who can beat whom in competition. Personally for me, the true transformative power of jiu-jitsu lies in how it can help you take on the martial arts of everyday life more skillfully.
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