|Water flows not because anything allows it to. That's just what water does.|
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
No matter what kind of BJJ you train, whether it's self defense, MMA, competition, or hobby, there are unifying concepts to all BJJ. Even without them being spoken, after a while you get the sense of them.
One of these concepts is of personal responsibility. Meaning as far as Jiu Jitsu is concerned, a small man cannot control all the actions of the bigger stronger man, they can however control their own actions in nearly every situation. You don't expect your opponent to let you do anything, that's their job. Your job is to do it. It's a fight after all. Our training partners however should be respectful of our bodies and be careful not to harm us. Even still, our own personal safety is also in our own hands. Martial art is the art of defending yourself. There is this sense in Jiu Jitsu, especially during the formative white belt years, that you should know when to tap, and also be aware not to put yourself in positions that may endanger yourself. Don't have complete trust in your opponent, if you don't understand your safety is also in your control, you'll never develop the skills needed to keep yourself from harming yourself. It's not innate, like anything else in martial arts, it must be learned and practiced. Sometimes we get hurt by our training partners, but there's still a high incidence of injuries where we hurt ourselves, whether we like to admit it or not. You can develop that spider sense of realizing you're getting close to a wall, to other people, that you're foot is caught in their gi, and so on. From purple belt and above, when you roll with a white belt or a beginner, half the time you're focusing on them not hurting themselves and telling them to calm down.
Another concept is of flowing. Always be flowing. It means to always try to better your position, it means transitions, it means chaining together submissions. Your job is to flow and block your opponents attempt at flowing. That's Jiu Jitsu and is one of the ways it is different from arts with katas. It has to always remain true to the fight. I don't mean self defense or MMA fight, I mean the struggle to attain your goals.
Even when we're stuck in a position, being smashed, our breath is flowing, our mind is flowing, our Jiu Jitsu is flowing. We're constantly wriggling, pushing, or pulling to make sure the position doesn't get worse. We're monitoring their hands so they can't submit us or punch us. We stay calm and flow.
Flowing is like breathing in BJJ, it's just how it's done. Being calm in the fight. We call sparring, "rolling" because we look like a ball rolling on the ground, it implies flow. The other terms we use, "play" or "game," it all implies flow.
Which brings me to a curious situation where people slap hands, and tell you they want to "flow." Flowing and rolling should be synonymous, what else would you be doing? There are many things a BJJ person might say before a roll. They may ask you to watch out for certain injuries they have. They may ask you to roll slow, or roll light, specific or positionally train, or some combination of these requests. With "flowing," most people don't ask you if you want to "flow," they tell you, "let's flow." They're dictating the type of roll you guys should have, and if you don't abide, then you're a jerk. Telling someone "let's flow" is basically a coded way to tell the other person to allow gaps and space, allow you to play your game, and in return you'll do the same. In essence they want to remove the struggle, they want to remove the fight. It is not true flow, it is a bastardized flow. If anything, saying let's flow should mean, let's go even harder than normal.
The analogy of the river is often used and cited in martial arts. A river doesn't ask to allow it to flow, that's its nature. Bruce Lee talked about water in the creation of your martial arts style so you can seamlessly blend only the most effective moves against live opponents, not katas, not scripted movements.
If you roll slow, you can still be realistic, but slow enough so you can both mentally see opportunities, and do moves that haven't gotten to a quick level of efficiency. It also requires people to be tighter, as you don't have momentum to seal up gaps. Rolling light means, you can go at normal speed, but you are expected to use less strength, relying more on positional tightness, technique, and weight to seal up gaps. Specific training is used when you want to isolate one area of the fight, one sequence or position, and train it live or light or slow or any combination to remove all the gaps. You can also drill, where your opponent allows you to do the move and gives you feedback so you can remove gaps. That is an acceptable way to allow your opponent to do their moves and the terms are agreed upon before hand. The whole idea of getting better is about removing or sealing up gaps, the way people mean "flow," is to train in a way that highlights gaps, train gaps and holes into your game. In an art where a "hole" means the biggest flaw of your fighting style, and your obsession is to get rid of all your "holes," why train to create more holes? Training holes and gaps into your game or knowingly adding it into someone else's game is a cardinal sin in BJJ. It's madness. "Flow?" You mean hole.
The specific rolling style of "flow" in my opinion is best used for teaching purposes, especially with children. Or as a demonstration, a live kata to get people interested in BJJ. Possibly as a warm up tool or for Jiu Jitsu fitness. Either way it is a different and specific purpose, needs it's own designated space and time, and needs to be agreed upon and understood this is not a live roll.
The job of the live roll is to make us better at our flowing while attempting to stifle our opponents from flowing. All of course in a friendly manner as we're all training partners. That is what's understood when we slap hands and bump fists, you would only need to specifically mention flowing if you're attempting to alter that unspoken agreement. You're saying no, you don't want your opponent to stop your flow, you want them to allow you to move and have winning opportunities. The idea is to improve improvisation, but even then people in a "flow" tend to stick with their same few moves and it just turns into inefficient loose sweeps, same passes, and the same few submissions. It's katas with a pretend opponent. Except you do have an opponent, so why not fully utilize them? That's one of the reasons BJJ is unique among martial arts, you can't train without an opponent. It's what makes it so alive. Improvisation needs real feedback to work and improve. Not fake feedback, and "let's flow" is telling your opponent to do all the things they would never do in a real roll. Fake rolling only gets people better at fake fighting.
The other definition of flow is of the mental flow. Think Michael Jordan. Being able to put your mind in a place where things slow down, and you make all the right moves in a critical moment. This is also called "the zone" or "the inner game" or in this case "inner BJJ." This normally happens when stakes are high and it's urgent. It's something that extreme athletes are able to do, or normal people when their life or the life of someone they care about is in danger. Athletes like Reggie Miller used to train for it in practice by having the shot clock constantly run down ten seconds at a time, having multiple defenders, with his back away from the hoop, and train to turn and make the shot. Soldiers train by having scenarios as realistic as possible. The way BJJ people use "flow" training is equivalent to having your defender step out of the way as you run to make a lay-up. Then it's their turn to do the same.
Why do that type of sparring? Actually it's not even sparring as sparring implies controlled fighting. It's just bad drilling. Might as well really drill and do it right because when you say, "let's flow" you're saying, let's not spar, let's not fight. Let's pretend to spar but really let's do bad BJJ drilling. When it is no longer fighting, when there is no struggle, then it is no longer BJJ.
Train to be calm in the fight, don't learn to be calm by removing the fight element of training.
It's not flow, it's ego
When people tell me to "flow," I tell them, "sorry I don't want to teach myself bad habits and learn to create spaces. Practice makes permanent and flawed practice leads to gross incompetence." I then tell them I'm willing to go slow, or light, or watch for injuries (e.g. sore neck, will not stack pass), or a combination, but still be realistic and tight. I also offer to meet them before class in the future to drill or specific train. In this situation, only the person asking to "flow" benefits, and even then that's speculative, maybe it just helps with false confidence. It is a uniquely selfish and self centered way to train in my opinion. Which is why it's hardly ever asked, just demanded. It is not about learning or getting better, it's the way of the ego and you're demanding that it be protected.
I once saw a young blue belt who came from a school where all they did was "flow" train during sparring, go against a very good competition blue belt. Of course the "flow" blue belt said, "let's flow" and his training partner nodded his head. The very good blue belt did flow, chaining move after move, very light, very technical, submission after submission. Real flow, not fake "flow." Halfway through the roll, the "flow" blue belt got up pissed off and left. The good blue belt thought "flow" was another way to say go light. He didn't realize it meant, allowing the other blue belt to submit him. In his defense, the good blue belt never had anyone ask to "flow" before. The "flow" blue belt wanted it to be like a highlight reel of moves for both of them, his opponent gets to win half the time and the other half he gets to win. What is that supposed to train? The techniques used are BJJ but the philosophy is not BJJ. It's like everyone getting a gold star in kindergarten. We all get turns at winning.
Should you "flow" when you're really tired? No. It is when you are tired that you must train to be even tighter. You don't have the strength to keep the pressure up so fatigue can be a tool to make you better at technique, or better at defending. It's an opportunity, not an excuse to be sloppy. You are only left with your technique and nothing else to finish the fight, that is BJJ!
In ideal Jiu Jitsu, nothing needs to be said. We can become so sensitive and aware, we match the intensity level of our training partner, and go at their speed and pressure. The higher you go up on the belt ladder, the better you become at this (but not always). Sometimes though people take advantage of this and go slow and light then spaz out and try to submit you at all costs, from friendly roll, to tournament roll. Those are the schizophrenic training partners.
I'll match your level of intensity
One of the best guys I've trained with, no matter what you said before a roll, his response would be, "I'll match your intensity." I asked him why he said that. He said because people lie, and he doesn't want to lie. He knows some people say one thing and do something completely different. He doesn't know if you mean it or it's your ego talking. He also doesn't want to agree to terms and break them when you break them. This way he never agreed to your words, he agreed to your intensity. He never ends up lying. People say let's train light and go hard, or say they have a bad ankle, no footlocks, but then attack your foot. If you didn't want him to kick your ass like crazy, he wouldn't as long as you didn't try to kill him either. He literally flowed, the intended way. He controlled himself, not you. Just like in real fight, he controls himself, and his actions match the situation. He was prepared for anything. That's how you should train.
Majority of people he rolled with, rolled much smoother. Not just because of his style, but also because of what he said. He told you he would match your level of intensity. He makes you realize, you may say one thing but do something else. He is not trusting that you will always roll calmly or friendly. People who rolled with him then became more aware of their actions. They became more accountable. They rolled better for it. The hard thing to do was "flow," how do you show "flow" with your rolling without telling them "let's flow." It just feels like sloppy training to him and that's one thing he won't do. If you go fast, he goes fast, if you go slow, he goes slow, if you go light, he goes light, if you go sloppy, he remains technical, for both of your sake, so you don't hurt him and you don't hurt yourself. BJJ they say is an invisible art, it's about feeling, if no one can feel what you mean by "flow" unless you say, "let's flow" then what is it? It just feels like you're bad at Jiu Jitsu and you don't have the patience, humility, and discipline to improve.
Why train holes into your game? Don't be a flow-hole
I find people who religiously ask people to "flow," have a harder time competing, growing, getting better, and undoing the years of "flow" damage they've created on themselves. Personal responsibility like I said. We all flow, when you specifically ask to "flow" is when you're asking to roll incompetently and asking your training partner to do the same. In a sport about muscle memory, drilling, and practice, practice, practice, that type of incompetence may become a permanent fixture in your game.
It's already a flow art, it's your job to flow and your opponents job to stop you, asking to "flow" defeats the purpose. I used to think "flow" training meant you were more technical, as it seemed the the opposite of uncontrolled spaz training. Now I understand that "flow" is not the opposite of uncontrolled spaz training, it is it's cousin, it is controlled spaz training. Technical training, slow or fast, light or heavy pressure, means smart, realistic, and tight.
None of us signed up for BJJ to just "flow." We could do Aikido or Japanese Jiu Jitsu for that. And there's nothing wrong with that if that was your original intent, but that's not the agreed upon terms of the art born of the streets of Rio.
Before you say, "let's flow," don't be selfish with training, your training partner needs to get better too and everyone is busy and has limited time to train. If you ask and they agree, well then, those are the agreed upon terms of the roll. At least ask. Imagine if someone slapped hands, bumped fists, then all of a sudden said, "let's go full MMA bro."
Sam Yang from an early age has been obsessed with connecting the dots between martial arts and efficiency, health, mindset, business, science, and habits to improve optimal well-being. For more info, join his newsletter. You can also connect to Inner BJJ on Facebook and Twitter.