Advanced BJJ players often talk about ‘flow’ – the ability to effortlessly adapt to changing situations and flow around resistance you might run into. But flow isn’t a state that you suddenly arrive at in BJJ.
Instead, as you progress in the art, you start getting little glimpses of it, hints of how things might hook together, and brief moments when things work out effortlessly.
Of course, when you’re first starting out in BJJ the first couple of months are usually a complete confusing mess.
Nothing makes sense: you get squished, dominated and submitted. And, what’s worse, is that most of the time you don’t even have the vocabulary to describe what’s happening to you.
But if you persevere for two or three months then you usually break through to a new stage.
In this new stage you now more or less understand what’s happening to you when you roll. You might even have some good defensive instincts built up that make it harder for your opponents to sweep or submit you.
They’re no longer taking candy from a baby.
But it’s still hard to pull the trigger and actually launch your own attacks.
One of the next big steps in your BJJ development is the ability to string moves together. And this is where flow starts to develop.
Techniques rarely work in isolation, so the most common way to break through to the next stage is to develop your first basic gameplan. A set of techniques that kinda sorta work for you most of the time, at least against people of your own skill and size level.
Oftentimes these breakthroughs are actually guard sweeps. One or two techniques that can semi-reliably sweep an opponent if you catch them off guard.
(For me this was the Slingshot Sweep from Spider Guard, and the Tripod/Lumberjack Sweep combo from open guard. Even as a white belt, if I could set up an opponent into giving me the position for these sweeps then – boom – they were usually going for a ride.)
OK, so you’ve now got a guard sweep that sometimes works. But this success brings new problems, new challenges…
For example, you might be able to get to the top, but now you have to deal with passing your training partner’s guard. It really sucks to nail a gorgeous sweep, send your partner for a ride – ass over teakettle – only to get tapped out a few seconds later by a triangle choke or armbar from inside their guard.
This problem forces you to develop a more complete game. You realise that you need one or two good guard passes to go with that guard sweep which is finally beginning to work for you.
So then you start working on your guard passes…
At first any guard guard pass is better than no guard pass. But this doesn’t work for long, because the truth is that some guard passes just work together better with certain guard sweeps than others.
Too many people have guard passes that are completely unconnected to their sweeps. Which means they end up in good positions after a sweep, but if their favourite guard pass has a different starting position, they disconnect, reset, and try to get to their preferred guard passing position.
The problem is that while you’re reseting and getting to your favourite guard passing position, your opponent is also doing the very same thing on the bottom. He’s resetting and getting to his favourite guard variation. So now it’s a battle of your best pass against his best guard.
But in an ideal world you don’t want it to be a fair fight.
You want to be Indiana Jones from the Raiders of the Lost Ark era (not the silly later movies)… You know the scene: if there’s a crazed dude skilfully waving a sword in your face you don’t look for your own sword or use your whip. No, you draw your pistol, and shoot the guy.
In other words, if you have an advantage then don’t match your opponent on his terms – you want to use your advantage to the maximum extent possible.
Almost every guard sweep has a set of guard passes that naturally connect to the sweep. These passes allow you to take advantage of the position you end up in as you come to the top. (This is a concept that Brandon Mullins drove home with many concrete examples in his Non-Stop Jiu-Jitsu instructional set.)
Once you’ve developed effective techniques to sweep your training partners and pass their guards, you now face a new problem: the goal of BJJ is submission, so how can you submit the guy?
Logically then this sends you on the quest to find a couple of high percentage submissions you can reliably apply from the top position.
And once you have that submission, well then, you just built your first effective three part gameplan.
To reiterate, your first simple gameplan might look like this
- Sweep (with a specific sweep)
- Pass (using a specific pass)
- Submit (with a specific choke or joint lock)
Gameplans like this work far more often than you might give them credit for. And the first time you pull it off you will have achieved a little bit of flow.
This is a very exciting stage, because once you feel how a few techniques can work together it opens the floodgates…
If Sweep A leads into Guard Pass B, and Guard Pass B leads into Submission C, then you’ve got a template of how BJJ is supposed to work. You’ll need more combinations as your skills improve, but you’ve grasped the principle of the thing. Your opponent’s reactions or defences to one technique set up your next technique.
Later your gameplans will become much more extensive, and your ability to combine moves will extend to many different positions and situations. But for now, even with that super-simple gameplan, you’ve achieved your first taste of ‘flow’, that elusive yet critically important aspect of jiu-jitsu.
You have a route through the forest. A plan. A set of techniques you can rely on and continue to refine as you continue to learn more details, adjustments and tweaks.
Once you have one path through the forest then it’s much easier to find others.
You might start building sequences combining other guard sweeps that combine naturally with new and different guard passes. Or you might start developing sequences and combinations that start in bad positions – turtle, side mount, rear mount – but turn the tables on your opponent and get you to a good position.
But regardless of the exact sequence, the concept is the same: certain techniques link together more naturally than others.
Once you find your first combination, your first mini-gameplan, you’ll understand flow in your bones rather than just as an intellectual concept.
And your game will never be the same again!