In Monkey-Jits, my BJJ program, our tag line is, Flow as the Way! What does that mean, and why should you even care?
What I have noticed over the years coaching BJJ — is that when a student has an amazing experience rolling, and they have their best performance — what they unknowingly describe about that experience, is the Flow State. The flow state, is an embodied state that you enter, in moments of peak performance. People typically describe how time seems to slow down in the role. The self vanishes, past/future disappear, and only the present moment exists. A persons actions and awareness merge, making them feel fully connected to every move.
These days, we no longer just let Flow find our students, we teach them how to find Flow. We purposively build the 5-key components of flow into every session. In fact, personally I do it all the time when I train. Here is how I both set up a roll to activate flow, as well as with my students:
Key Component 1: Setting goals that have clear and immediate feedback
I set a goal for every roll. It doesn’t have to be a big goal like tapping everyone out I roll with. In fact, I choose a goal I know, while being challenging, that it’s still possible for me to achieve. I typically choose parts of the game that are not my best, but against people I know I have a strong likelihood of being successful against. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of flow suggests, “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
Key Component 2: Becoming immersed in the particular activity
Once I have a goal in mind, I immerse myself in the action of attaining that goal. For example, if my goal was to pass the guard, when I do pass, I purposively put myself back into the guard and do it all over again. Each time I do this, I make sure that I engage with what is required in the 3rd key component of flow.
Key Component 3: Paying attention to what is happening in the moment
This is crucial. Paying attention to what is happening in the moment, is the key to successful management of your inner game. Too many times we get bogged down on planning for the next move, or holding onto a mistakes we just made. When I have decided on a goal, and I am immersed in it — even if it’s not going exactly as I planned — I simply recenter myself by focusing on my breath. Focusing on the breath brings me back to the present moment and away from unhelpful thoughts (like past and future thinking).
This third key component of flow, is really talking about being mindful. As Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” It is in other words, not possible to enter a flow state if I am worrying about what I should do next, or if I am holding onto mistakes I made earlier. Both of these thinking approaches take me away from the present moment. When my actions merge with my awareness, it means I am being present. To do this, I need to be fully present in the moment, both aware of what is happening inside and outside of myself without judgement. It’s easy to pick up when I am judging my experience, simply by noting if the way I am thinking is focused on past or present thoughts.
Key Component 4: Learning to enjoy immediate experience
Enjoying the immediate experience is directly related to how well I am able to pay attention in the moment. When I am not judging my performance as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but simply as is, I am able to enjoy it more. When I am present, every position is a workable. There is no good or bad place to be in other words. Each time I find myself in a tough spot, because I am being mindful (present, without judgement), I am not only able to accept where I find myself, but curious too. This ‘playful’ mindset, is conducive to creativity, and innovative solutions, that is simply not possible when I am obsessed with winning or losing. As Mihaly suggests “…It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
Key Component 5: Proportioning one’s skills to the challenge at hand
This is key. Flow is directly related to your skill, and the challenge you are facing. If you are a white belt, the chances of finding flow against a purple belt may be difficult. Most purple belts are quit competitive. I often call this belt, the Ego Belt. It’s not a bad thing of course, but if you are a white belt, the challenge of going against a much higher belt can be overwhelming. It’s important then to roll as well with people in the same belt level as you, where the chances of finding flow are greater.
Crucially here though, I as the coach, purposively set up the mat so people can be playful in a roll even with higher belts. Actually nothing in my experience activates a flow state quicker, and more often than play. The way I describe it to my students is that we want to play without ego, and be challenged without competition. In these rolls no one is setting out to tap someone else out. There are times for that, but not when we are play rolling. In these kinds of rolls, we leave out the submissions, and ask everyone to not hold onto any single position for longer than 10-seconds (if someone escapes sooner the game continues). If a person hasn’t escaped a particular position by 10-seconds, his or her partner simply moves to another position. The goal for both participants is to experience all the positions of the BJJ game in a single roll. In fact what this brings out in people is both novelty and complexity with managed risk — all experiences that make flow more possible.
“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience