“Flow” Drills and their Value in Combative Training

One of the things that attracted me to the Filipino martial arts (FMA) many years ago was their use of reflex training or “flow” drills. Although I was already coming from a somewhat non-traditional martial arts background, most of the training I had done still followed a classical format: dedicated technique-based practice, sparring, and tool development on striking pads and bags. The most dynamic thing we did was “technical sparring,” which was basically technique-based training in a multiple-attacker context–in simple terms “combative monkey-in-the-middle.” The addition of multiple attackers and a higher degree of spontaneity allowed this form of training to better simulate the adrenal stress of a real attack; however, it was very dependent upon the skills and intensity of your training partners. When done right, it was magic. When done wrong, it looked like a bad kung fu movie.

When I finally got involved in the FMA, I was amazed at the wide variety of flow drills and the way that they accelerated both skill and reflex development. At a basic level they get you to repeat key sequences of movement with a partner in a way that has scalable speed and intensity. As you get better and start moving faster, you can incorporate more aggressive energy, footwork, and other elements to increase the performance anxiety. As the saying goes, “Repetition is the mother of all skill.” To take that a step further, “Repetition under stress is the mother of higher, more reliable skill.”

As my skills and understanding of flow drills developed, I realized that it was possible to use the drills as a foundation of a very dynamic training method I now call “the chess game.” Since many drills include similar angles and movements, it is very easy to “substitute” the response of one drill for that of another. That substitution may be a simple variation within the flow of the original drill, or it may prompt your partner to transition to the new drill. Once you understand this concept and the basic mechanics of substituting and transitioning, you have a very dynamic, spontaneous set of choices to play with. Better yet, so does your partner. Since there are no verbal cues in this process to prompt each other, picking up on and flowing with the transitions becomes extremely spontaneous and develops amazing reflexes. In fact, in many cases students do everything right and respond with perfect reflex and technique, yet are unable to mentally “keep up” with their actions to register them cognitively. As we say in MBC is that “Drills give you repetition; transitions give you reflex.”

Once I discovered the “chess game” method, I began analyzing the drills I had learned to see how well they supported actual combative application. I also began modifying the drills to make them more knife-oriented and to more closely replicate plausible attacks. Through this analytical process—and the concurrent development of MBC’s stopping-power-based targeting system—I realized that some FMA drills, like Sumbrada, provided an outstanding template for very effective combative technique. I also realized that many of traditional FMA enthusiasts who practice Sumbrada regularly have no idea of its true purpose. Since MBC is, by design, a results-oriented system, I was determined to include only those drills that support worthwhile skill development. Over time, I have added, deleted, and modified drills to “fill holes” in MBC’s reflexive response patterns and avoid unnecessary “martial masturbation.” That process still continues as MBC–and my understanding of combative training–continue to evolve.

Earlier this year, I taught a seminar in Switzerland for a group that included instructors of several Filipino systems. During that seminar, they asked about my approach to flow drills. Since there are many different names for the same drill and many different variations of specific drills, I picked Sumbrada (aka 10-count, Large-Box Drill, etc.) as a good place to start. I first demonstrated the MBC version of the drill to provide a frame of reference. I then demonstrated a traditional FMA version of it and contrasted it to the MBC version, explaining in great detail why I did specific things differently. Finally, I invited my hosts to show me their version of the drill. When they did, I noticed that they did some things very differently than any other version of the drill that I had seen. Always eager to learn, I asked them why they did things that specific way and how those differences supported the combative applications of the drill’s movements. Their response, which shocked me, was that they didn’t know the drill was supposed to have combative applications. It was just a drill. My response, which applies to ALL training methods, is “if you don’t know WHY you are doing something, don’t spend your training time doing it.”

MBC’s approach to reflex training drills is all about ingraining patterns of motion that have direct combative application. If we don’t understand why we’re doing something, we question its usefulness and typically stop doing it to focus on things that make more sense. This approach has evolved significantly since I first began teaching MBC publicly in 1997. Although it will continue to evolve, its current state of the art is documented in my most recent training DVD “Martial Blade Concepts: Volume 3.”

MBC Volume 3 guides you step by step through the drills of the MBC system and, very importantly, explains why the drills are included in the system and what skills they isolate. When appropriate, I compare them to traditional versions of FMA drills and explain why I have chosen to alter specific elements to be consistent with MBC’s tactics and methods. Finally, I explain and clearly demonstrate the combative applications of the drills—how the practiced movements and sequences of angles can be reflexively applied in a high-speed, spontaneous defensive situation.

Once the foundation of drills is established, I teach you the basics of the “chess game” and how to use it to create a dynamic, unpredictable, yet safe training methodology that provides a format for scalable progression. I also explain how this training method fosters a higher degree of “fighting spirit” by allowing you to work through your mistakes without ever breaking stride.

Flow drills are the secret to developing real, dependable combative skills in the MBC system and are an incredibly dynamic training method. For those of you who don;t have training partners, they also form the foundation of a solo training program that is much more meaningful and applicable than traditional “kata” because there is no mystery to the application of the movements.

Drills provide the repetition you need to develop skills and, ultimately, the reflexes necessary to use those skills in a real defensive situation. Although they may look intimidating at first, I have successfully taught them to thousands of students. If they can do it, so can you. And if you’re not doing it, your training isn’t reaching its full potential.

Go with the flow!

Stay safe,

Mike