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The Hazards of Flow Drills

Updated: Jan 11

Let’s begin with a bit of wisdom that Sir Basil Liddell Hart espoused in 1934: “An important difference between a military operation and a surgical operation is that the patient is not tied down. But it is a common fault of generalship to assume that he is.”


by Mark Hatmaker


flow drills

Photo Courtesy of Mark Hatmaker

Like-minded readers no doubt have made the jump to visions of martial demos conducted in sanitized, predictable environments with freeze-framed partners behaving exactly the way the demonstrating master desires. In such conditions, our martial surgeries can do wondrous things. We can execute pinpoint strikes with spinning hook kicks, expertly slash and cut with knife techniques aimed at static targets, and even find that specific nerve bundle that will render the attacker’s knees like jelly.

To be candid, some martial endeavors seem to exist exclusively in that realm of stop-motion Ray Harryhausen choreography. Unfortunately, martial exertions in this frozen realm diverge even more from reality when one acknowledges that on the street, the patient not only will move but also will try to draw blood from you.

(Note that students of self-defense aren’t the only ones who must contend with this. Those who follow rigid creeds, stern philosophies and strict religions suffer the same “tied down” burden. Real life seldom resembles the perfection that exists on pages and in theories. Pragmatic people expect the vehicle of life to behave a bit differently when in contact with the actual road of living and when forced to maneuver alongside other cars on the freeway.)

If we move up on the thought chain with respect to combat, we begin to encounter “flow drills” as a solution to the pitfall of training with a static opponent. We see such flows in many practical and pragmatic martial arts: the hubud of kali, the counter recounter of boxing, the hook-bust-rehook chain of grappling and so on. These drills — and arts — seek to put a little life back into training. They strive to become a bit more reflective of battlefield conditions.

In flow drills, the patient isn’t completely tied down. He’s free to thrash a wee bit, but that thrashing occurs in confined and predictable ways. To be clear, flow drills are a huge step up from the static variety of training, but the error the drills seek to correct has its own hazards you should be aware of. The following are things to consider when using flow drills.

Recall the Special Forces maxim that says, “How you train is how you will fight.” This is nothing new. Most martial artists know that training is meant to elicit patterned responses. However, we must be scrupulous about the responses we wish to elicit. Training is also a situation-dependent endeavor, meaning that often the environment, the emotional investment and the degree of intensity we use in drilling need to be considered factors in the drills in which we engage.

Here’s another tidbit from the Special Forces: “Let your training be reflective of the conditions of the battlefield.” Merely moving beyond the tied-down patient may not be enough.

If you do any flow drill in a slow and contemplative manner, you’re likely grooving that “emotional terrain” — that level of athletic intensity — into your core reactions. If your flow drill provides freeze frames for “hot spots” — that is, places to go crazy with your exaggerated replies — well, that’s not quite reality, is it?

If your flow drill is a repetitive loop, it probably requires you, the surgeon, to lie down on the gurney and become the patient, then respond in a manner that allows the person who was your patient to carve you up. To clarify, looped drills have a portion in which the offender becomes the defender and vice versa. Now, drilling requires tit for tat so all can play, but if you inculcate a continuous loop that contains the very tactic or motion you’re drilling to thwart — and then you start the loop as the attacker — you’re drilling yourself to the error.

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If your flow drill maintains similar range/ distance within itself, you’re carving neural paths of no retreat/no advance within the movement set. Actual confrontation does not maintain strict ranges.

If your mind becomes grooved to responding to the drill but not to any other angles or ranges, you’ve trained to become a good “driller” but not necessarily a good warrior. If you’ve engaged in any of the preceding, you’re still missing out. It’s an improvement because your patient is no longer tied down, but it’s not ideal because he’s also not fully ambulatory.

With all that said, you might think I’m a flow-drill skeptic. Not at all. I believe flow drills are absolutely useful and necessary. However, I’m skeptical of any and all flow drills that exist in a way that inflicts training scars.

Flow drilling conducted with tactical variability and punctuated engagements does a lot to move your surgeon-patient relationship a bit higher up the reality chain. If you have an eye on truer reactions to the chaos of reality, you’ll fine-tune your drills so they resemble less an exchange with a writhing, thrashing patient and more an exchange with a struggling, drowning victim who just might take you down with him.

Mark Hatmaker’s website is

This article originally appeared in a 2022 edition of Black Belt Magazine

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