Sometimes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you’re just…on.
You feel amazing; your body and mind are firing on all cylinders. Time seems to slow down, you’re intensely focused, and you see your opponent’s attacks coming from a mile away. You react without thinking. Your movements flow together seamlessly like water. You’re fluid; adaptable—your mind completely clear…this is the Flow state in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
The term “Flow” was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ME-hi-ee CHEEK-sent-me-hi-ee). Understanding and actively practicing Flow state in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be a key to launch your BJJ game (and your life) to new heights.
This article is a summary of the book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and how it relates to Flow state in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I hope this blog will help you better understand the Flow state, how to navigate into Flow while training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (as well as other activities), and how the Flow state can help you lead a more happy and fulfilled life.
(It is important to note here, while it may take a bit more legwork in the beginning of your BJJ journey, anyone can achieve the Flow state in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.)
What is Flow?
Flow is a state of consciousness where we are completely absorbed in an activity. Everyone experiences this feeling at some point in their lives.
How does it feel to be in a Flow state? Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience in his TED Talk, Flow: The Secret of Happiness:
- Completely involved in what we are doing—focused, concentrated
- A state of ecstasy—of being outside everyday reality
- Great inner clarity—knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing
- Knowing that the activity is doable—that our skills are adequate to the task
- A sense of serenity—no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego
- Timelessness—thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes
- Intrinsic motivation—whatever activity produces flow becomes its own reward
I vividly remember my first Flow experience in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I was a 4-stripe white belt sparring with a 3-stripe blue belt. Usually this guy smashed me, and our rounds were never even close. However, one day—for no apparent reason—I found myself performing much better than usual. I was calm and keenly aware of every situation. For most of the round, he was trying to pass my guard, but I kept recovering. Each time he switched his grips I intuitively knew exactly what he was going for and how much control he had, and I defended myself effortlessly. I still ended up losing the round on points, but he praised my guard retention and defense. It wasn’t just me.
The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu mat is a perfect environment for achieving Flow, and this is largely due to necessity of presence. When someone is on top of you making your life miserable, you can’t think about anything else! You can’t worry about your bills when someone is trying to choke or armlock you. And if you aren’t present, you’re in trouble! Your best bet to perform at your peak and evolve as a martial artist is to regularly practice presence in your Flow state.
Getting in the flow
To achieve a Flow state in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and elsewhere, first you must engage in what Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow activities”. These are activities where Flow is more likely to occur. Flow activities are characterized by:
- Clear Goals
The activity should have clear objectives.
- Provide Immediate Feedback
The activity should make it clear how well you are doing. You should be able to tell if your action was correct or incorrect, and where you stand in the activity.
- Skills balanced to action opportunities
The activity should be balanced between your skills and the challenge of the task. If the challenge is too great, you can get frustrated, then worried or anxious. If the challenge is too low, you can get relaxed and then bored. If both the challenge and the skills required are too low, you can become apathetic. Csikszentmihalyi says, “when high challenges are matched with high skills, then the deep involvement that separates flow from ordinary life is likely to occur.”
Some examples of flow activities are: rock climbing, basketball, football, playing a musical instrument, writing, yoga, dancing, freestyle rapping, skiing, and of course Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu! (the best flow activity!) BJJ is a great flow activity because it thoroughly satisfies the flow activity characteristics mentioned above. The goal is clear: Win via points or submission. You receive immediate feedback while sparring by successfully or unsuccessfully executing moves or defending yourself. And while challenge and skill level can vary depending on your opponent, minor adjustments in your training will bring this into balance.
“It’s like opening a door that’s floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.” – S. Perry 1996, Flow in Poetry
Navigating into Flow
This chart illustrates how the balance of skill and challenge can produce flow, as well as other states. For example, if you’re a white belt sparring with a purple belt, you may experience a bit of anxiety. The challenge is too great and your skill level is too low to achieve Flow. On the other hand, if you’re the purple belt beating up on the white belt, you might be too relaxed, or even bored.
Both the Arousal and Control sections are good places to be. In his Ted Talk, Csikszentmihalyi mentions that slight adjustments to activities can help a person move from these states into Flow.
In the Arousal section, the challenge is great and the task requires a moderate level of skill. The activity may be exciting, but not quite exercising your full potential. To move into Flow state, simply increase the skill necessary to meet the high challenge. For example, if you are sparring with someone just as good or better than you, increasing your skill level or working on your A-Game techniques will move you into the Flow section.
The Control section is where your high skill level is set slightly off-balance by a mediocre challenge. When rolling, if you find yourself controlling the situation with relative ease, make it a little more challenging! Let your training partner pass your guard, or put you in a bad position. Work your escapes or submission defense. You will find that not only will you become more present and engaged with the situation, but your overall Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu game will improve drastically!
Flow State in BJJ for Beginners
Most flow activities require a solid foundation of skill before a flow state can be reached, none more so than Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You need to understand basic positioning and know enough techniques to get around a sparring session to reach a Flow state in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This can take some time, so make the initial investment! Go to class regularly, spend as much time as you can drilling and rolling, and make sure you understand the fundamentals of every position (we will post another blog to help you with that, soon).
The Flow will come, so don’t be discouraged when you don’t feel it early on. Just keep practicing!
Tips to Help Reach Flow State in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
To be in a flow state, you must be present, and to be present you must be breathing! Avoid holding your breath or taking shallow breaths. Practice breathing deeply using your diaphragm. Avoid breathing with your chest.
- Warm up
Make sure your body is warm and ready for physical activity. Sometimes this can call for 30 minutes to an hour of practicing/drilling before you can start flowing. Think of it as an investment, or priming the pump. Prepare your body for the activity at hand.
- Drill Drill Drill!!!
Drill your best moves, drill your worst moves. Drill transitions, drill bad positions. Drill before class, and drill after class! Muscle memory is absolutely vital for flow states. Drill it to kill it!
Take a moment before the round starts to get in tune with your surroundings. Here’s a technique that helps me: take a few deep breaths and listen to the sounds around you. I like to think of ambient sounds as the hum of the universe. Tune in. Align yourself with the goals of the sparring session. This may help you become more present when the round begins.
Regular meditation can improve your mindfulness in your training and your everyday life. Consistency is key, so start small! Still your mind for 1-2 minutes every day and grow from there. Take a look at last week’s blog on Floatation Therapy for information on a more intensive meditation practice, perfect for focusing your mind on your BJJ game and achieving the Flow state in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Flow, life, fulfillment, and happiness
“When a person’s entire being is stretched into full functioning of body and mind, what everyone does becomes worth doing for its own sake. Living becomes its own justification. And the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In the book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Csikszentmihalyi notes that people who Flow more in their life (regardless of the activity) are generally more happy and fulfilled people. Every day we have opportunities to transform mundane tasks into Flow experiences. For example, a task like mowing a lawn can normally feel boring or tedious. But if you decide to mow the lawn as quickly and efficiently as you possibly can, you raise the stakes by increasing the challenge and the commitment of skill. Let the chore become a work of art. Execute with deliberation, focus, and attention to every detail. These kinds of activities must be completed anyway, so seize the opportunity!
Csikszentmihalyi states that we can Flow with just about any activity by investing psychic energy and consciously deciding to be interested in the task. Psychic energy is just another way of saying “active attention” or “concentration”. We can invest our psychic energy into flow activities as well as our everyday responsibilities. We can also invest it in non-flow activities, such as watching Television. Either way, the amount of psychic energy we have is limited.
Given that our free time and psychic energy are limited, we must invest our attention consciously and intelligently to lead a happy and fulfilling life. Leisure activities such as watching Television or relaxing don’t require much skill, nor are they very challenging. Thus, they rarely produce a flow state, and generally are not fulfilling experiences. Csikszentmihalyi discourages too much leisure activity, and insists that leisure activities can improve our lives but only if we know how to use it effectively.
In short, the more we Flow, the more happy and fulfilled we are as individuals. The key to a great life may be in how we choose to invest our attention and concentration, especially in our free time. Flow activities, work, chores, and social/family time are great opportunities to practice mindfulness and thus invite a happy and meaningful disposition to our lives.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is just one of countless possible flow activities you can do. Understanding the Flow state of consciousness can help us perform more efficiently and lead better lives for ourselves, and regularly finding the Flow state in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can lend to extreme growth on the mat. Again, people who Flow lead happier and more fulfilled lives, and they’re better at Jiu-Jitsu! This is just one of many pieces of wisdom you can pick up from the mats. As always, thank you for reading, keep up the hard work, and always go with the flow!
I hope you found this article informative and helpful. If you did, please share with your BJJ family!