I don’t like flow drills.
Wait a moment, haven’t I written 5 books on Flow Drills? The (out of print) Heian Flow System and the four books of the Pinan Flow System?
Yes, I wrote those books. No, they don’t contain Flow Drills, they outline a Flow System.
What’s the difference?
I see a Flow Drill as a fixed sequence of moves, generally performed as a cycle of one person’s actions requiring a fixed response from a partner, sometimes involving the participants swapping roles on a fixed regular basis.
A Flow System by contrast is a training methodology designed to help users flow seamlessly between grappling and striking options in accordance to the dynamics of their sparring. While there may be static ‘fixed’ responses the first time a combination is introduced, extra variables are quickly added so that there really isn’t anything ‘set’ and the open-ended training is only limited by the experience, skill and imagination of the participants. Limiting yourself to only moves in the Heian / Pinan kata (which not all of my Shotokan students do) is hardly setting tight constraints.
So why don’t I like Flow Drills? Why am I so unreasonable?
Flow Drills is a blanket term. In principle I am in favour of any form of training that develops skill sets and attributes. I am in favour of any training exercise that is enjoyable (because people are more likely to show up to do it). I am also wary of anything that has a tendency to lull people into metronome-like behaviour and to become too accustomed to set responses to set stimuli. Like many instructors I am concerned that often people can fall into a distorted focus on becoming fast and proficient at the drill (the set sequence of movements) rather than proficient at using the techniques independently with a working understanding of how and when to use them and how to adapt them.
So like everything in the martial arts, whether flow drills are good or bad depends on their use in the overall structure of training, too much or too little of any training method has the potential for health or harm. If you continuously circle but never land then you are setting yourself up to crash. If a Flow Drill is fixed then it should probably be short. If points in one flow drill match up with points in another then students that know both should actively be encouraged to randomly switch; the more ‘overlaps’ and thus switch points the better because a Flow Drill will instead evolve into dynamic sparring or even alive sparring (if anything can be done). The more time in class we ‘lock’ students into fixed combinations the more we limit their ability to become skilful in recognising opportunity and proficient in adaptability and improvisation. Those traits must not be sacrificed for rigid training in the name of ‘skill development’.