The state of optimal mental and physical performance a person experiences when “in the zone” is also known as a “flow state”. Flow states are reached when an athlete or performer has reached a peak state of total immersion and enjoyment with laser focus in a task. In a state of flow, the perception of time and space is significantly altered and complex tasks are executed with ease under duress. Achieving a flow state is possible in many activities including playing video games, painting a portrait, climbing a mountain, and even at your workplace. In sports, flow states can give athletes a competitive edge against an opponent who is not in the zone.
In jiu-jitsu, flow states can be helpful in accelerating our progress as well as higher levels of enjoyment. In addition to the edge flow states can give you in competition, they can also optimize many aspects of your class experience. Learning how to get into and maintain flow states can be tricky, but with enough mental practice, flow states can be experienced much more frequently. Because flow states can have such a profound impact on learning and performance, achieving them in your jiu-jitsu practice is strongly recommended.
The Benefits of Flow States
Research in the realm of flow states suggests that there are many positive outcomes that result from achieving flow. For one, flow states induce greater feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment in activities. Secondly, flow states can improve performance and correlate well with better moods, improved learning, increased creativity, and higher levels of intrinsic motivation. These are all important in a practice like jiu-jitsu where poor experiences from bad training days and learning plateaus can make the difference between someone’s desire to stick with training or give up entirely. If flow states can improve learning and performance as well as elevate levels of self-motivation, they can serve a great purpose in the Gentle Art. Furthermore, if you are a competitive athlete, learning how to enter flow states more easily can lead to a profound improvement in your performance.
Achieving a Flow State
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Cheek-sent-me-hi) quite literally wrote the book on flow states. In his book, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi suggests three conditions to achieving flow.
1. A person must have a clear set of goals when engaged in an activity.
2. The activity must have clear, immediate feedback.
3. There must be a healthy balance of how one perceives a task’s challenge and one’s own abilities.
In jiu-jitsu, we all should have a goal that we are
currently working towards. If we do not have a specific goal set for us, we cannot fully devote the resources required to achieving these goals. This is important in flow because not working towards something very specific will lead to distractions. A distracted mind cannot enter a flow state.
Feedback is also an important part of experiencing flow states. If we do not receive feedback, we cannot figure out what adjustments we need to make. In jiu-jitsu, not having feedback can lead to confusion, self-doubt, and anxiety. For good, consistent progress, feedback is necessary because of the constantly changing demands of our jiu-jitsu journeys. For flow states, immediate feedback is doubly necessary in order to consistently modify our performance to the tasks at hand. This includes understanding the balance between where our skill set lies and the goals we set to achieve.
Challenge to Abilities Balance
Feedback is necessary to match our skillsets to our goals. There must be a balance between the challenge of the task and our abilities. If you perceive the challenge to be much more difficult than you believe yourself capable, you will experience anxiety. On the other hand, if you perceive a challenge to be way too easy compared to your skillsets, you will experience boredom. Boredom and anxiety are both huge disrupters to flow states.
Maintaining Flow States
Achieving flow states can be fairly easy with practice. A major challenge, however, is maintaining the flow state. There are a few emotions or feelings that kill flow states. Boredom and anxiety are two states that thwart the achievement of flow states. Apathy is another. In order to maintain flow states, these mental states must be avoided because they can shift your focus from the task at hand to other negative mental states.
As suggested earlier, there must be a good balance between the challenges you are facing and your skill level. If your skill level and your tasks are too far apart, you will kill your flow state. For example, if you are a brown belt that is working on cross collar chokes from Closed Guard, you may find your attention waning and your level of boredom increasing. The trick to beating boredom is to increase the challenges that lie ahead.
On the other side of the challenge/skill balance is when your skill level is far below the challenges you face. Being a white belt and having to learn the details behind more advanced guards and passes can create a state of anxiety. This feeling of intimidation can remove you from a flow state and the way to get back in will be to learn at a level a little bit closer to your skillset. Here is perhaps the best time to be learning cross collar chokes from Closed Guard.
Apathy in this context is a loss of interest. Apathy in jiu-jitsu can happen when, for whatever reason, you stop having fun. The day you begin to lose interest and enjoyment in what you are learning is the day you lose the ability to achieve a flow state. Step number one is to make sure you are enjoying yourself. Step number two is to catch yourself when you are having a bad day or perhaps taking things too seriously. We all want to be great in jiu-jitsu, but more important than being great is just making sure you are having fun. When we stop having fun, we will become apathetic and this apathy can lead to negative feelings towards jiu-jitsu.
Hacks for Getting into Flow States
Nootropics are basically brain supplements. They work by enhancing cognition and allowing for more focus and attention to various physical and mental tasks. Research suggests that various neurotransmitters are involved in flow states, including, but not limited to, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. While nootropics do not necessarily induce flow states, they can increase the likelihood of experiencing one by their influence over these mental processes. Try a nootropic during your next sparring session and see how it can help to increase your state of flow.
Flow states require a quiet mind. A meditative practice allows the mind to strengthen its decision making and executive components without the usual noise provided by external stimuli. In other words, meditation can help your brain more effectively turn down the irrelevant subject matter and allow you to focus on the task at hand, whether that is learning a difficult technique or competing in your next match.
Flow states are associated with joy while performing a challenging task. If you are working too hard or feeling down on yourself, your sense of enjoyment will rapidly decline. Having fun is important to get into a state of flow and furthermore, to maintain it. Try not to take things too seriously and just let loose. Furthermore, jiu-jitsu should be a fun experience despite its obstacles.