What is flow rolling
In its essence flow rolling is light sparing in BJJ. Most people who have trained will have at some point bumped fists and had the partner ask if they want to go light or flow roll. A flow roll differs from a competitive roll as neither person is going all out to finish the other. The focus of a flow roll is for both persons to transition through positions by using technique over strength.
You might be thinking BJJ is all about technique and strength isn’t a big factor in BJJ but even the lightest grapplers rely on using the bodyweight to control an opponent. It just happens to be that the bigger you are the more apparent a strength and weight advantage it becomes.
A flow roll is not focused on winning or submitting your partner but moving through positions and allowing a good technique to advance the position rather than using strength to slow down transitions. Sometimes when flow rolling you find yourself in positions that you wouldn’t ordinarily risk putting yourself in if you were engaged in a competitive roll.
All submissions should be catch and release with the roll continuing from the same position, there should be no tapping and no resetting. When there is a risk of being submitted its easy to revert to type and utilise techniques that you are most confident in executing. This results in missed opportunities to increase the skillset you are comfortable using and ultimately a stagnation in progress. With catch and release if you try something new and get caught its not the end of the world you can just move forward into the next position.
At its heart flow rolling is all about give and take. It’s not supposed to be dominated by one person as there should be a close to even spilt of top control time between both participants regardless of belt rank or ability. If this is not the case, then what your engaged in probably isn’t a flow roll at all.
Don’t make the mistake however of confusing flow rolling with drilling. Although you may have a specific technique in mind you want to work you have to naturally allow the roll to move towards that technique. As you may have guessed by now its most effective when you just go with the flow and don’t have anything in mind other than the present position!
So, you know what flow rolling is but what benefits will this style of training bring to your game?
Freedom; When flow rolling most people experience a feeling of freedom, suddenly you don’t have to work the tried and tested techniques that you go to when rolling competitively. Flow rolling offers a chance to open your game and work from positions you might usually try and avoid. It unshackles you from the burden of chasing victory and focusing on the submission, but it also removes the fear of being dominated or submitted. This allows both persons to flow through positions and see how they respond.
Low risk; When you flow roll, no-one is at risk of getting hurt. This is simple really, if you’re not trying to crank someone’s arm off or even fighting for or against sweeps and transitions, the risk of getting hurt is hugely reduced. This makes flow rolling great if you are recovering from an injury and just getting back into training. Equally if you are getting a little old and you can’t take the punishment of an intense roll every session then flow rolling offers an avenue for continuing to grow your skill set without the risk of getting injured.
The subconscious; Flow rolling provides an opportunity to commit movements to the subconscious. Often the best way to learn is by starting slowly and building the intensity and flow rolling is an excellent way of doing this. There’s always the possibility you are surprised by the techniques your body naturally moves you towards, some of them you may not have drilled for a long time or seemingly forgotten about. The mind can often be surprising in what it pulls to the front when we allow it the freedom to do so.
Feel; This feeds into the next point a little, when in engaged in correctly flow rolling provides a feeling of being of on auto pilot. Like when driving a car, you don’t have to think about the minor adjustments you make to the wheel whilst driving down the road, in flow rolling you can develop a better feel of positioning and balance and this is without having to exert a ton of energy.
Development; One of the areas flow rolling is great at developing is reflex reactions to openings that your opponent is offering. In a flow roll you can learn how you opponent counters your attack and look for opportunities to take back the advantage. It is often when your opponent moves that they open themselves up to be attacked and flow rolling will allow you the time to see these reactions and to start capitalising on them.
Education; A final point to be made here is about the great opportunity for learning and teaching. In a flow roll both persons can offer advice on how to make techniques work better. It might be something simple like offering a handy tip about why a sweep isn’t quite working but both persons can learn from the lighter training. The stronger focus on technical ability means that both participants are looking to improve this part of their game and as a result you are more likely to engage in teaching and learning which is beneficial for both. In a competitive roll you are much less likely to explain why a technique failed as you are swiftly trying to take advantage of an opening to punish the mistake.
Why does rolling light get a bad rep
In BJJ there is a rigid hierarchy in place black belts at the top and white belts at the bottom. Most people who train tend to want to defend their position within that hierarchy. As such when it comes to rolling you’ll often find that Blue belts don’t want to lose to white belts, and purples don’t want to lose to blue’s and so on. Equally the reverse is also true as blue belts try to prove themselves by beating purple belts and purple by beating brown etc.
This structure means that everyone is constantly looking to defend their position, the best way this can be achieved is by submitting others. If you are flow rolling you must abandon your ego and let your opponent take control to make the roll work. Abandoning their ego can be a difficult obstacle for some to overcome.
On top of this many claim that what separates BJJ from other martial arts is the ability to spar at a high intensity with regular frequency. If you start flow rolling, then you move away from this advantage and back towards martial arts with a lower sparing rate or intensity. It’s a bit like the guy in the gym who thinks everyone should lift heavy all the time but doesn’t think about how much time they have spent off injured.
Ultimately the intensity of a roll is always set by the person who’s bringing the highest energy level. If your trying to flow roll at 20% and your training partner is going at 40% unless there’s a decent skill gap they will control the intensity of the roll which forces you up to their intensity level. If you try flow rolling and it doesn’t go as planned discuss what flow rolling means to you and make sure your training partner is on the same page. If they continue to bring the intensity you have no choice but to smash them!
When should it be used
Your training habits should always be fluid and responsive to the situation so there’s no golden rule to how often flow rolling should be included in your regular training. As mentioned above sometimes your body tells you its exhausted and needs a break from the punishment it has taken, this can be a great time to add flow rolling into your training.
If you have choked the new white belt out 5 times in a row are you really going to learn anything by punishing a mistake they don’t even realise they have made to make it 6. Think how much more beneficial it would be if you offered to flow roll and provide them with a little extra coaching whist you can still work on your technique and positioning.
BJJ in its natural state
BJJ wasn’t founded on the basis of using one’s strength, in fact it was almost the complete opposite. Flow rolling is an excellent way of getting back to a more technical style rather than being physical and using weight and size to dominate.
One of the pitfalls of flow rolling is you need to have a partner who is 100% committed to the flow as well. If you’re not both 100% committed what tends to happen is the intensity is slowly ramped up until it resembles a normal roll. This often starts when one-person tries to defend a position to strongly rather than committing to the flow, the other party responds by upping the tempo to try and execute the technique and so the decent into a sparing session begins.
Flow rolling has so many advantages and it defiantly brings a different edge to training. Unfortunately, far too many people allow there training to be overshadowed by a macho pride and a desire to prove themselves at every opportunity.
Sometimes you just have to see where the flow takes you.