Live rolling is one of those elements that make Jiu Jitsu unique among the martial arts. It gives us an opportunity to put our skills to work in a setting that is more realistic than when we simply drill.
But what do you look to get out of your rolling experience? The answer to that question can tell you a lot about your progress in your Jiu Jitsu journey.
For the new white belt, the answer is probably survival, plain and simple. Theirs is a game of pure defense coupled with spasms as they try to muscle their way out of situations that require finesse. They also forget to breathe. It’s a rough period—for both the new white belts and their training partners. But it’s the place where all our journeys began.
After the spasms stop and they learn how to breathe, students fall into one of two intermediate stages with their rolling. Some look for submissions. Others look for knowledge. Sometimes, students will fluctuate between these two stages. But both of these stages are marked by an anxiety over their skill level.
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The students who seek knowledge from their rolls are consciously aware of their need for more knowledge and skill in Jiu Jitsu. Meanwhile, in an unconscious way, the submission hunters are single-mindedly hunting for submissions so that they can convince themselves that they have a skill set that—deep down—they know they haven’t yet mastered.
Looking for knowledge is the more productive approach, but we’ve all given in to the temptation to simply hunt for submissions as a balm for our bruised egos.
These stages can have their ups and downs. They aren’t as painful as the survival stage, but your sense of well-being after a roll is entirely dependent upon the day’s results. The submission hunters will tally their scores and either congratulate or berate themselves. And the knowledge hunters will mentally review their success recognizing the right opportunity to use a move and executing those moves. Like the submission hunter, the knowledge hunter will either congratulate or berate himself for his performance.
But there is a stage after these, where Jiu Jiteros look for something entirely different. Instead of hunting for knowledge or submissions, they seek “flow.”
For students new to Jiu Jitsu, the concept of flow makes about as much sense as Czechoslovakian love poetry. But flow is a well-studied field in sports and music, and it’s what advanced students seek during live rolling.
“Flow” has been defined as “a state of full engagement, control, concentration and action awareness, occurring during an activity perceived as highly self-rewarding and characterized by clear goals, unambiguous feedback, distortion of time perception, loss of self-consciousness and a balance between challenges and skills required to best perform it.”*
In music, flow is what happens when musicians are in sync and locked in. Some musicians refer to it as “rhythm lock” because they feel locked in to the music, working in harmony with the other musicians. It creates a sense of unity between the musicians, and the result is a satisfying euphoria.
In live rolling, flow comes about when both participants are fully engaged not in winning but in “working the puzzle” and solving the challenges that each sets for the other.
Just as in music, the result can be a sense of being in sync with your teammate—even though rolling is inherently adversarial. You may be opposing each other’s moves, but you’re both on the same page when it comes to continuing the roll and enjoying the challenges.
When flow is happening, you may be surprised (and disappointed) by how quickly your five-minute roll has passed. But, by far, the most rewarding part of flow is that it gets you out of your own head. Instead of being concerned with your skills or lack thereof, your focus becomes the roll itself. Those anxieties disappear.
Flow is, by far, one of the more rewarding experiences in Jiu Jitsu, and it’s a definite milestone in your journey when you first experience it. However, it does take a while to happen. Since there must be “a balance between challenges and skills,”* it’s not something that will be immediately available.
It takes time to develop those skills to a sufficient level. And it takes a loss of ego; you have to allow your skills to be what they are instead of worrying over them. After all, flow and performance anxiety don’t mix.*
Finally, it takes a teammate who is also open to the experience of flow. You’re never going to find this state when you’re rolling with someone whose goal is simply to win.
But when everything lines up, you begin to understand what flow is all about. Suddenly, that Czechoslovakian love poetry makes perfect sense. Suddenly, you understand why all those advanced belts speak so reverently about letting your rolls flow.
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