How to Encourage Mushin or “Flow” in the Dojo

Researcher Steven Kotler writing in the Harvard Business Review, listed four conditions that produce a flow state – intense concentration, goal clarity, feedback as to how well you are doing, and a properly matched challenge to skills ratio. We use these continually in martial arts training.  

If the challenge level is set lower than the skill level of the practitioner, they will not enter a flow state, will not improve, will not enjoy class and will get bored. Some instructors try to remedy boredom in their students by adding more curriculum – more katas, more weapons, more talk about “the old way”, more ranks, patches and other extrinsic rewards. In the long run this approach does not work. 

What does work, according to the science of flow and practical dojo experience, is making sure that the level of challenge in the class matches the level of skill of the students.  That keeps classes exciting. This is why mere ‘repetition’ of kata is not useful, but doing kata many times while focusing on investigating different aspects of them, with varied intensity, highlighting body mechanics, energy flows, interpretation and applications for example, does. 

This can produce a deep transformation of the practitioners.

Not only a surface transformation, like river stones polished by flowing water, but a thorough transformation, like fabricating the blade of a samurai sword by precisely heating, pounding and cooling the metal, again and again, producing something entirely new, with properties very different from those of the original material.

If the challenge level is set much higher than the practitioner’s skill level then the practitioner will feel frustration and stress and will eventually fail. They will not cross the phase boundary and will not enter a flow state. 

Modulating the challenge-to-skill ratio during the course of a class produces a phase of high-challenge, within tolerable and helpful levels of demand, followed by a phase of moderate-challenge, which allows confidence-building and recovery. 

Using multiple, well-calibrated cycles of this kind in each class is an effective way to maximize technical competence and conditioning, while producing phase transition to flow. 


This post is an excerpt adapted from “Mushin and the Science of Flow: Phase Transformation in Kata, Part II” 

The first article in the series is “Damatte Keiko: Phase Transformation in Kata, Part I”


Post Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, L.L.C.

Photo by Thao Le Hoang, of Nguyen Van Lo’i’s Suzucho Karate-do Thanh Long Mien Nam, beach training

The Good Fight – The Virtues and Values of the Martial Arts now available in paperback and Amazon Kindle edition

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