Got Flow?

By Diane Ruth
Published on Oct 29th, 2010

Too much challenge and our student is overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, or unable to process the lesson. Not enough challenge and our student is bored, not focused on the lesson. “Optimal Flow” is the place where skills meet challenges. The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention, which helps your student effectively participate and learn. It has been noted that mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and martial arts seem to improve a person's capacity for flow. Among other benefits, all of these activities train to improve one’s attention.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor, says “creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives.” As a leading researcher in positive psychology, he has devoted his life to studying what makes people truly happy: "When we are involved in [creativity], we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life." He is the architect of the notion of "flow" -- the creative moment when a person is completely involved in an activity for its own sake (

As a Martial Arts teacher I am always looking for ways to keep my students interested in the material I need to present. I’ve been studying various teaching methods to educate myself on the science of teaching. Years ago, I was introduced to this idea of “flow” by one of my instructors. At the time I was not actively teaching so I put it in my notebook for future reference. Recently, I was looking through my notes and ran across this idea of “flow” again and now I was ready for the lesson. Surfing the internet, I found a wealth of information on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the above chart that illustrates the idea of flow. This chart was found on

So, how do you know if your students are in their flow? Pay attention to the student’s facial expressions. Do they look stressed? Do they look like they are day dreaming? Are they paying attention to what you are saying and making eye contact? What message is their body language giving? Are their hands crossed in front of them? Are they fidgety or calm? Students will use different words to describe how they are feeling. Listen for phrases like: “I don’t know if…,” “Oh, that again…,” “Do you really want me to…” or “That sounds like fun.”

You can help keep your students in flow by rearranging your lesson according to the reactions of your students in a given class. I’ve found that introducing the same ideas in new ways has helped with the boredom issue. For younger students you may need to be more entertaining and go through less repetition of basics in a given class. Games that are educational and fun would help this age group. For example: taking a stability ball and rolling it around the floor to teach students how to get off the line of attack is a fun way to get the point across. Most children already know to get away from the balls from various games they’ve been taught in gym. Using a stability ball allows you to have a safe & fun environment since it’s soft and slow moving. This part of the lesson should not cause anxiety in the students. This game can lead to a more traditional method of teaching the students to get off the line of attack now that they have the skill and have met the challenge.

Anxiety can be a little trickier. As Martial Arts teachers we are trying to get our students out of their comfort zones in order to gain new skills. This is good, but too much challenge will obstruct their progress. An eased approach is probably the best method to keep them in “optimal flow.” You can still build experiences, just at a slower pace. We are in no hurry to build skills since there really isn’t a hard fast time line in learning the Martial Arts. Does it really matter if it takes forty-eight months vs. forty months? I suggest giving them a challenge every class and back off when it approaches the anxiety level.

What if you have a broad range of students in one class? This could create a challenge maintaining the class’s flow. As your teaching skills improve you’ll be able to manage this task. Sometimes you will need to partner students based on their reaction to the material. You could give more challenge to the group at one end and less to the group at the other end. New white belts probably don’t have the attention to focus on one form for the entire class. They would be frustrated or anxious if you tried to overload them with material. A Black Belt on the other hand is more adept to spending an entire class working on a particular form or lesson. Black Belts generally are not bored or overwhelmed with studying limited material for an extended period of time. Belt rank will help categorize a student’s abilities, but that is not always the case. Even within each belt rank you can usually find a range from boredom to anxiety to the material.

In conclusion, you will find a range of students in all age groups and belt ranks with different FLOW. Your challenge will be to teach the lesson to all of your students at the same time while trying not to over challenge or bore them. Some students may need to work on the new lesson by themselves for a few minutes to process what they learned. Some do better in group exercises, some need a non-martial arts example and some need a freestyle component to get the lesson. A variety of exercises can be experimented with to maintain the flow of the class. With practice you too can have fun with the challenge of class flow.

Filed under Instructors and Teaching

Author Bio :: Diane Ruth

Diane started training in the Martial Arts in 1997 and received her Black Belt certification in 2003. For fifteen years Mrs. Ruth has trained in Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate exclusively. She is a professional instructor teaching both children and adults. Mrs. Ruth is a partner in M&D's Modern Martial Arts Club. M&D's Modern Martial Arts Club which is affiliated with The MALC and Kenpo2000. Diane's primary focus is developing a complete teaching strategy which incorporates Principle Based teaching.

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