The Ability to “Flow” in Combat

© 2001 Michael I. Torres, CSCS, NSCA-CPT

“In the groove”, “in the zone”, “in the bubble”, and “on auto-pilot” are all ways to describe what the Japanese call “muga”, and what Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) dubbed “flow” in the 1980’s. Flow can be defined as a period in time in which one becomes so completely involved in an activity that all other thoughts and emotions – what some consider the “self” – are excluded from consciousness. It is during this episode that an athlete is in the much desired, yet elusive mental state required to push his or her limits in the quest for peak performance. While most people view flow strictly as an afterthought, there are others who deem it as the sole purpose of any type of training due to the fact that it enhances their awareness, improves their mood, and most importantly, enables them to perform at a level of proficiency they would not otherwise be capable of.

Bruce Lee was an ardent believer in the flow state (he referred to it as wu-hsin, flow’s Cantonese counterpart) and stated, “The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action” (Tao of Jeet Kune Do, p7). He believed that “physical stoppage”, or the opposite of wu-hsin, could create many problems for a martial artist, as it would almost always result in hesitation and self-doubt. It is also said that he planned to use wu-hsin as his alibi should he ever have to legally defend a violent act, by simply stating that he did not do it, “it did it all by itself”.

The flow state has often been associated with a feeling of complete control, peacefulness, freedom from physical restriction, and a sensation of weightlessness. While experiencing flow, it is not uncommon for people to lose track of time, and even an awareness of their own action. The martial arts are just a few of the avenues that can induce this intangible mental state, but they are, by nature, some of the most effective. This is due to the fact that martial artists regularly set “stretch” goals and are determined to reach them in a labor of love, two prerequisites to attaining flow. It is theorized that an athlete (in any sport) will have a very difficult time surpassing a baseline of mediocrity without adequate enough knowledge to routinely induce the flow state.

While some feel that it is impossible to “will” the flow state to happen, I believe that flow is attainable with the understanding and subsequent application of a few basic concepts. Armed with these tools, you can continually improve your performance within your respective art, as well as advance your ability to defend yourself instinctively in a high-pressure situation on the street.

1. Learn to focus your attention

In order to truly “let go of yourself”, you must be able to direct your attention to the task at hand like a laser-beam hitting a dot on the wall. Flow can only be achieved when the data entering awareness is congruent with pre-defined goals. For example, if you isolate your lead jab during sparring, your concentration primarily needs to be on the openings that are presented to you throughout the session and on landing the jab. Any other focus, such as personal or business matters, or how you may appear to others watching you, is superfluous and detrimental to your performance. If your focus wanders, it is because your concentration isn’t suitably directed. Attention is vast – think of all of the input your brain receives while driving a car, yet you have no problem absorbing what is useful – but it isn’t limitless, and therefore any information not related to the task, especially if it causes any form of anxiety, can divert it rather easily.

When in danger of losing this concentration, focus on your heartbeat, the rhythm of your feet, your breathing patterns, or the way your muscles are feeling. Recognize that your concentration is slipping and immediately choose an appropriate focal point and regain your focus. You will find that if you don’t recoup control over your concentration, you will hinder your ability to act by missing critical signals. You need to distract the distraction!

2. Embrace your inner coach

We all have an inner coach, a voice in our head that helps us make every decision. Our inner coach, or our self-talk, needs to keep us in line and focused throughout an activity. It needs to be positive, energetic, and strong, and it needs to guide our actions in the right direction. Internal feedback during an activity is just as, if not more important, than the feedback we receive from others (instructors, coaches, friends). Think about it: Who knows us best? Who knows how to push our buttons? Who knows how to motivate us to do something we don’t want to do? It is ourselves – our own collective self-consciousness. While many people feel that this self-consciousness is lost during flow, this is actually a faulty assumption. It is the concept of “self” that escapes us during flow, keeping us from having to watch ourselves as if a third party while concurrently performing the activity. Our self-consciousness, however, is omnipresent and is essential to maintaining the flow state, as long as it is acting positively.

Additionally, our self-talk needs to be task-focused and not outcome-focused. It needs to be positive, and we need to have the ability to discontinue all negative self-talk. In order to impede negative self-talk, remember these three steps: 1) always pay attention to your inner coach and be aware of its affect on your performance in order to swiftly determine when self-talk becomes negative, 2) once determined that self-talk is negative, firmly think “No more!” or “Stop!” forcefully to yourself, and 3) quickly replace the negative stream of thoughts with a positive one, making sure it is focused solely on the task at hand.

3. Develop “mental blueprints”

The flow state is much easier to return to once it is experienced, but it isn’t always the easiest thing to achieve. One proven strategy is the use of mental blueprinting, or visualization. When traveling, if you don’t have a map from point A to point B, you will find yourself deciding your path en route (and probably getting lost). This is the same as the concept of mental blueprinting; if you don’t know precisely what you need to do, you will waste precious attention reserves focusing on your plan during the engagement. Instead, you always need to plan out your strategy ahead of time, whether for a workout or for a possible street altercation. Blueprinting can free up your cerebral energy for the duration of the activity in order to focus on “doing” instead of on “what to do”. A classic example of this type of blueprinting is a baseball player out in the field. Before each pitch, it is essential that he know exactly what to do should the ball be hit in his direction. If he finds himself with a baseball in his glove and no plan, he is going to waste precious seconds deciding his strategy. Instead, with a plan he acts without hesitation, the goal of any martial artist in training or on the street.

When utilizing mental blueprints for the street, focus on the areas in which you spend the most time – perhaps at home, at work and en route. Formulate strategies, with you as the person in charge, and make sure that escape is your number one priority. Should you ever be attacked, you will be surprised at just how much this blueprint will guide your actions as if your movements are happening through you, putting flow close within your reach.

4. Raise the stakes and improve your skills

Whatever the immediate activity (drilling, sparring, etc.) we need to continually find a way to 1) set clear goals, 2) find ways to measure progress and 3) raise the stakes when we become bored. In order to consistently achieve the flow state, we must continue to increase our skill set as well as the challenge, in order to avoid becoming disinterested, overwhelmed, or apathetic. This means striking a unique balance in which Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and Dr. Susan Jackson label the “C/S Balance” (challenge/skills) in their book “Flow in Sports”. The activity needs to be challenging, but not so challenging that it is perceived as an impossibility. As your skill level increases, you will need to continually increase the level of personal challenge in the activity.

Along with the built-in challenges that your art provides, you may need to create your own challenges in order to captivate your interests. For instance, when sparring with a beginner, you may need to create more demanding contests than simply “winning” or “scoring”. Instead maybe you focus on another metric, such as “number of thigh kicks landed per round”, or if you are a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, “number of submissions from the guard”. If you can make it more challenging, chances are you will not only have more fun, your skill level will continue to grow, and you will find yourself in flow more and more often.

5. Maintain a positive outlook

As human beings, we constantly focus on “what could be” instead of “what is”, always looking to our expectations instead of our present action. Becoming focused on an outcome, whether it is positive or negative, takes us out of the present and further away from flow. Instead, we need to be focused on the process at hand by concentrating on our strategy, on our technique, or on our approach. Bruce Lee said it best when he said, “The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or defeat. Let nature take its course and your tools will strike at the right moment.” (Tao of Jeet Kune Do, p12)

Unfortunately, to make matters worse, we are typically inclined to focus not only on a possible outcome, but a resoundingly negative one. Imagine confronting what could be one of your worst fears – an aggressor that outweighs you by 100 pounds (all muscle) with incredible fighting skill. The first reaction most people have is to visualize what this person can do to them and the humiliation they would feel after it happens. At this moment, years of training go out the window and they immediately become a 5-year-old child scared of the proverbial monster in the closet. Achieving the flow state under this amount of stress is close to impossible; there are just too many anxieties present and they will prevent the ability to lose your “self”. Now imagine if someone told you that the aggressor is scared to death of getting punched in the face, and he will probably cower in fear as you encroach upon him. Still afraid? Probably not. All of a sudden, your perception of what is possible just swung in your favor. Fear is motivated by our expectations, and when these expectations are encouraging, flow is feasible.

Tony Blauer, a pioneer in performance enhancement research as it relates to combat, teaches the word ‘fear’ as an acronym – “False Expectations Appearing Real” or “Failure Expected, Action Required”. In essence, what this means is that we are usually not scared of anything when we are certain of the outcome, but when the outcome is unknown, we automatically project onto the situation the worst possible thing that can happen to us. This creates instant anxiety and disallows us from acting without reserve due to expectation of impending failure. Instead, we need to focus on the possibility of a positive outcome, which will then leave us feeling challenged instead of concerned.

In the case of the large aggressor, how would you feel if you saw an opening in his defense, or if you knew that his size would make his movements slower? Even if he doesn’t cower in fear every time you get close to him, you will now view the situation as a challenge and will be more confident. Instead of focusing on what he “could” do, you focus on what you “can” do. You have extinguished the negative expectations and are instead focused entirely on the task at hand with a newfound confidence in your own abilities. This will further help induce flow.

6. Practice, practice, practice

The old maxim “nothing breeds success like success” is a critical belief for optimal performance. In order to have confidence that you will be successful, you need to have experienced it. You need to fine-tune your skills until you forget you have them, and then let yourself go with the performance. Preparation inherently builds self-confidence and initiates a positive spiral whereby self-confidence can ultimately lead to the flow state time and time again.

On the street, fights can transform rather quickly. One minute you could be standing talking to your husband or wife, and the next minute you could be flat on your back – knocked down with a sucker attack you never expected. Your opponent could pull out a knife, or his friend could mount you and start punching your face. Regardless of the circumstances, the truth is that a fight is never static. How does this affect your ability to flow? If you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable in any fight venue, your attention will be diverted from the subtleties of the brawl to your negative self-talk, even if only for a few seconds. Your ability to adapt without losing focus will be severely limited. Flow on the street is possible only when you are in your element, therefore you may need to expand your training to include experience in various venues such as stand-up fighting, close quarter tactics, ground work, or weapons, and train these venues in an integrated and dynamic fashion. This will ensure that every element is your element.

Tony Blauer talks of the overkill mentality, which is an important concept, especially when considering street defense. How many people are you going to face on the street that have more training that you do? The overkill mentality is based on the theory that you need to believe you have prepared more than your opponent, and that he is vulnerable because of this fact. If you have erroneous beliefs such as “I need to have a black belt to be able to defend myself” or “I needed to work on my uppercut more”, you are setting yourself up for failure. Instead, focus on your hard work and convince yourself that you are not only prepared, but that you are very well prepared and can outperform your opponent. Only through continual practice, starting with the basics, can we channel this confidence into the flow state.

One may also practice with “emptying the mind”. Try the following exercise: Sit down, and close your eyes in a quiet, dark room. Focus solely on your breathing, and try to clear your mind of all conscious thought. The length of time in which you are able to clear your mind during inactivity will directly relate to your ability to empty your mind under pressure. Consider this: If you cannot absolve your thoughts while sitting alone in silence, how will you possibly be able to function on auto-pilot, without negative self-talk, during a rigorous activity? Improving your skill with meditation is crucial to achieving the flow state. While it is possible to achieve it without meditating regularly, it becomes increasingly easier once you have enhanced control over your interfering thoughts.

Although the flow state may seem attainable at first, you must make sure to avoid a struggle to achieve it, as you will be creating yet another diversion that will have the opposite effect on your mental state. You will move further and further away from clear concentration, due to your intent to “find the flow”. Remember, those that have achieved the flow state repeatedly describe it as an almost effortless condition where things just seem to “click”. Therefore, in order to reproduce this state, we need to replicate that feeling of effortlessness by not taking our actions too seriously – literally learning to go with the flow.

The flow state is one that will help us be our best, both as martial artists and as everyday people. It is believed to be that those who experience flow regularly are generally more confident, more self-assured, and happier than those that do not. In martial arts, being able to attain this state can help us in many ways – it can assist us in competition, it can help to improve our skills day-to-day, and it can offer itself as an equalizer during a street attack.

Remember this: our reactive brain is much faster than our cognitive brain. Therefore when we can consistently view our actions as though they “just happen”, instead of something we need to deliberately initiate, we have successfully achieved the critical flow in combat.

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