Reaching peak performance takes time, effort, and dedication. Anyone who has tried to obtain mastery of any skill, whether it’s a martial art, musical instrument, or professional ability (e.g., surgery), knows that there are no shortcuts to becoming great and that you can only achieve peak performance through a combination of knowledge and practice.

Similar to the idea of peak performance is the concept of “flow”. Many writers have described flow as a state of mind where one is so wholly absorbed in an activity that they lose track of their surroundings, their inner monologue, even time. In fact, musicians often say, “If you’re thinking, you’re stinking.” In other words, if you’re trying to think out the notes that you’re playing rather than letting them just come to you, the music is going to sound stilted or forced.

When one is in a state of flow, they are experiencing maximum concentration and are oftentimes capable of their absolute best performance. It’s when major league pitchers throw perfect games, when musicians take the best solos, and when jiu-jitsu fighters turn technique into artistry. It may not be until the aftermath that they even realize that they’ve been in a state of flow.

How Do I Achieve Flow?

According to Coach Firas Zahabi of Tristar Gym in Montreal in the above video, finding flow in jiu-jitsu is about balancing the difficulty of a challenge and skill. If your opponent is too skilled or a workout is too difficult, you are going to stress yourself. When you’re in a state of stress, you are going to feel fatigued, you are going to get tired, and you are not going to be able to fully immerse yourself in the experience. Conversely, if your opponent isn’t skilled enough or the workout is too easy, your mind can start to wander. If this continues for too long, you may even get bored.

The best way to think about this balance is by thinking of your capabilities as a container that changes in volume. As you get better, the volume expands—it can hold more liquid. Your challenge is like liquid that can be poured into the container. The more difficult the challenge, the larger the volume of liquid. Ideally, you want to match the container’s volume and the volume of the liquid. There’s no unused capacity that might take away from your concentration, and the amount of liquid is not beyond your capacity.

Before achieving a flow state, of course, the first thing you need to do is develop a certain level of skill or talent. It’s simply not possible to get to peak performance if you don’t know the mechanics and techniques of jiu-jitsu. This is not to say you need to be a black belt or have spent the last ten years training religiously; you just need to be advanced enough so that using jiu-jitsu has become second nature to you.

Advice from Coach Firas

When he’s coaching, Firas is constantly trying to gauge if his athletes are in a state of flow and he’s correcting accordingly by either giving less experienced fighters an advantage or taking away tools from his better fighters. If one of his star fighters is performing well but doesn’t seem entirely absorbed, he’ll restrict what they can use while sparring. This is particularly effective when the skills between the two fighters are clearly uneven—for example, when a blue belt is sparring with a black belt. He may take away the black belt’s ability to use their right hand or both hands. If you take away enough tools, the fight becomes even.

Another way to make fights more equal is to allow the less experienced fighter to start at an advantage. For example, you can allow them to pass your guard and then get into a mount position. As another example, if your opponent needs five moves to get to an arm bar, you can forfeit three of them. In many ways, this is similar to red zone drills in football, where the offense starts 20 yards away from the endzone. True, they are at advantage because any mistake by the defense will end in a touchdown, but the offense still needs to dissect the defense and execute the plays correctly to get the ball in the endzone.

From a coach’s perspective, this allows the more experienced fighter to improve on their defense and escapes. Meanwhile, the less experienced fighter gets the opportunity to work on submissions and maintaining control. More importantly, it gives them both the chance to enter into a state of flow because you’ve made things less difficult for the less experienced fighter and more challenging for the more experienced fighter.