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Flow Sparring by Stephen Kesting

Last week I had a short but fun training session with my friend Ritchie doing what we call ‘flow sparring.’

The rules of flow sparring are very simple: you have to keep moving and you can’t use strength. You can’t hold a position for more than a couple of seconds and you have to move, even if it means you’re going to lose a good position. And you don’t finalize submissions; you can go for leglocks, chokes and armlocks, but you put them on loosely so that it’s relatively easy for your sparring partner to escape.

The whole goal of this kind of sparring is to create movement, lots of it! And by continually experiencing movement for the entire sparring session you’re improving your ability to scramble.

Scrambling is really important in grappling. It’s the transitional twilight zone between established positions, and if you become comfortable in these transitions then you’ll start to see more and more opportunities to apply flash submissions, or find unexpected ways to lock yourself into rock-solid pinning positions.

(In his excellent book ‘A Fighter’s Mind’ Sam Sheridan describes Marcelo Garcia – the best pound for pound grappler active today – as “the king of scrambles.” Watch some of Marcelo’s matches on Youtube and tell me if this isn’t true!)

Now I’ve actually heard some people say that flow sparring develops bad habits, and that one should concentrate instead on holding positions.
Of course the ability to hold good position is important, but fast-paced, seemingly chaotic transitions are always going to be part of the game. If you can maintain total positional control over your sparring partners at all times then your sparring partners simply aren’t good enough to challenge you. If skill levels are closer then there will be moments when there is no position and everything is just a giant scramble.

Flow sparring is just a training method. In an important match you wouldn’t fight this way: you might scramble, scramble, scramble, get a good position and then crush your opponent while incrementally ratcheting your submission tighter and tighter. That approach combines the very best aspects of a mobility-based game with a positional game (this topic is further broken down in my mobility vs position blog post here).
A lot of people don’t understand the concept of training methods. Think of it this way: almost every martial arts instructor in the world has his or her students do pushups. Does that mean that they advocate standing square to an opponent and repeatedly pushing them with both arms at the same time? Of course not!

Pushups are a training method to develop strength and endurance in the arms and chest.

And flow sparring is a training method to become comfortable with transitions, to recognize opportunities in the midst of movement, and to develop that elusive ability to scramble effectively.