How Flow in Training Can Help Martial Arts Fighters Perform

How Flow in Training Can Help Martial Arts Fighters Perform

You can train as much as you want, but what does it matter if you cannot perform at your best when it really matters?

This article will teach you how to train so that you can always perform under pressure. The short answer? Flow.

flow training

Note: this is a guest post that I’m really excited about. This time we hear from Vegard Gjerde. Vegard is a M.Sc. in nuclear physics and a flow guru. We’ll learn a bit more about him at the end of the write up.


Flow is when you enter a state of such deep concentration that the conscious part of your brain starts shutting down. Your infinitely more powerful unconscious takes control. The deep concentration triggers release of nitric oxide throughout your body. The nitric oxide flushes out stress hormones [1]. Then your brain starts pumping out neurotransmitters that boost your brain. You perform better. You learn faster. You become more creative. You build powerful neural circuits – skills.

Flow can be triggered. Flow researchers talk about the 17 flow triggers. There are four psychological triggers, three environmental triggers, nine social triggers and the creative trigger. In this article we will focus on the four psychological triggers and how you can implement them in your training.

Trigger 1 – Intensely Focused Attention

The first trigger is intensely focused attention. It is tied to all the other triggers, because they all increase your focus. You need to be fully engrossed in the task if you want to learn fast. It is what Daniel Coyle calls “deep practice” in his book The Talent Code. To become a master at anything, you need to accumulate thousands of hours of deep practice. Accumulation of deep practice is what helps you perform under stress. You go from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.

Trigger 2 – Clear Goals

It is easier to focus when you know where you are heading. Clear goals stimulate release of dopamine, both when you form them and when you achieve them [2]. Dopamine is a focus and performance enhancing neurotransmitter. In flow you release large amounts of dopamine. Set both long-term and short-term goals for your training. The long-term goals keeps you motivated. The short-term goals make you perform better. Make the goals as specific as you can. 

“Today I will focus on X, and become able to do Y. I will be able to do it in Z minutes.“

Trigger 3 – Immediate Feedback

Immediate feedback helps you focus because it keeps you on track to your goals. You don’t have to waste energy by wondering if you’re doing the correct thing. This means that you should seek to make mistakes in your training. This might sound counter-intuitive for some. But as Robert Bjork, chair of psychology at UCLA, said:

“We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn.”

Mistake focused practice is so incredibly effective because it targets how we learn by nature. The way to build a well-functioning neural circuit is to fire it, fix the mistakes, and then firing it again, repeatedly. Like Daniel Coyle says:

“Struggle is not optional—it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit sub optimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuits.”

There are two main ways to get immediate feedback. The first is that someone tells you what you are doing wrong. If you’re lucky enough to have a skilled coach who can personally train you constantly, use him for all his worth.

The second way to get immediate feedback is to be so incredibly focused and in tune with your instincts that you notice your own mistakes. This is the way of champions. Every time you notice a mistake and you correct it, you get a hit of dopamine [3]. This solidifies and corrects your neural circuit. It also increases your focus, pushing you further into flow.

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.“ – Samuel Beckett

Trigger 4 – Challenge-to-Skill Ratio

The fourth trigger is the challenge-to-skill ratio. If your skill level is far above the challenge, you get bored. If the challenge is way over your current skill level you get anxious. The trick is to have the challenge and skill level roughly equal. The sweet spot has been found to be where the challenge level is 4% above your skill level.

There are so-called “talent hotbeds” in some places of the world. This can be a music school that churns out most of the best musicians for 10 years. Or the Russian tennis school where almost all the best Russian players started their career. Brazil has been a talent hotbed for soccer players. According to Daniel Coyle, all these talent hotbeds engage in the same activity:

“They are seeking out slippery hills. […] They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability so they will screw up.”

When you grasp for the extra 4% you are forced into focus. Intense focus will eventually put you in flow. When you reach flow you get a release of skill-enhancing neurotransmitters, which leads to you quickly closing these 4% gaps.

Constantly push. When you feel it becoming easier, up the difficulty. Training is not supposed to be relaxing. Work to become the best or stay equal to the rest.

How Flow Helps You Perform in High-Pressure Situations

As you understand by now, you get into flow when you push yourself. You build strong neural circuits that fire correctly. This is what you want in high-pressure situations; you want strong and well-timed neural circuits that fire correctly without you having to think consciously about it.

As you can imagine: doing flow-based training can be tough. Most people can’t handle it. They want the “effortless performance”, as Robert Bjork puts it. But if you want to be sure that you perform under pressure you have to make training much harder than the real thing. Make it a flow experience.

The legendary trainer Tim S. Grover has trained basketball stars like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. They were always pushing themselves to new heights, making training a flow experience. Like Grover says:

“You don’t become unstoppable by following the crowd. You get there by doing something better than anyone else can do it, and proving every day why you’re the best at what you do.”

A good thing about entering flow while you are doing a task is that it becomes easier to reach flow again doing the same task. If you train in a way that regularly puts you in flow, it becomes easier to reach flow in later training sessions. It also becomes easier to reach flow in games. And in flow you perform at your best. You’re not thinking consciously. You just do. You can make high-pressure situations your flow trigger.

Combining Flow Triggers with Learning Techniques

In our work with the Primal Learning course we found what science tells us to be the best forms of learning techniques. These have been shown to be superior for learning fast. They also share some similarities with the flow triggers.

Interleaved Practice

Interleaved practice is practicing several different types of moves or skills in one session. People usually do blocked practice, which is repeating the same thing over and over again. This has been shown to be inferior to interleaved practice, which gives much better long-term results.

As you can see in this graph from a 2007 study: Blocked practice, or practicing only one skill, gives better performance while practicing, but leads to poorer performance in later tests.

Types of practice and performance
Source: [4]

If you are training in a martial art, you should practice several different moves, one after another. One of the reasons why this is better is that it encourages some forgetting. When you come back to the same move, you will make some mistakes, which you can immediately correct. You then build stronger and more accurate neural circuits.

Also, use the four triggers to push you into flow while you are doing interleaved practice.

Distributed Practice

Distributed practice is doing several shorter practice sessions instead of one long practice session. Studies show that you learn more from two 1-hour sessions with time in between, than you do from one 2-hour session. This is because of the spacing effect. You forget some things in between the practice sessions, which causes you to make mistakes. Like explained, mistakes are essential for learning.

In addition, your neural pathways need time to solidify after an intense training session.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is another one of the best learning techniques. Retrieval practice is trying to recall things. This solidifies your memory and can even increase physical skills. This means that you can practice martial arts when you’re on the bus or in bed. Visualize yourself going through movements and sequences you are trying to learn. The process of trying to recall it from memory strengthens your neural pathways. This also makes it easier to recall them in your next practice session.

Elaborative Interrogation

Elaborative interrogation is a form of higher-level thinking. It is going deeper into the subject. You can use this technique when you’re taking a break in your martial arts training session. The trick is to ask why. Why do you do this or that move in that particular way? Discuss why you do the things you do together with your peers or just with yourself.

Finishing Thoughts

Do you want to be sure you will perform in high-pressure situations? The trick is to make training harder than the real deal. Spend as much time as possible slightly above your skill level. Push the boundaries of what you can do. Practice many types of moves each practice session. Make it a flow experience. Train smart.

“Heart. Mind. Balls. If you have two, you can play, but you will never be great. To be great, all three.” – Frank Curiel

by Vegard Gjerde

Vegard Gjerde is a M.Sc. in nuclear physics. He is one the instructors of Primal Learning –
Join the Top 1% Fastest Learners. You can find his course on Udemy with a discount here. And definitely visit PrimaLearn to sign up for their newsletter.


[1] Esch T. “Stress-related diseases — a potential role for nitric oxide.” Med Sci Monit. 8(6):RA103-18.
[2] Flaherty, A. “Frontotemporal and Dopaminergic Control of Idea Generation and Creative Drive”. J Comp Neurol. 493(1): 147–153. 2005.
[3] Seidler et al. “Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Error-Based Motor Learning”. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2013. 
[4] Dunlosky et al, “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology”. Psychological Science
in the Public Interest 14(1) 4–58. 2013.
[5] Gjerde V., Gronstad G. “Primal Learning – Join the Top 1% Fastest Learners”. Udemy
online course. 2015.

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