Insights and Training Tips from Tactical Arts


Insights from the Tactical Arts Academy

Putting the Function Back into your Flow Drills


The Problem with Flow Drills

I often hear people say that flow drills in the Filipino Martial Arts are just not realistic. Sometimes they say there is no relation between flow drills and their sparring. Because of this, they don’t see any value in the flow drills, and they don’t see a reason to include them in their training. I understand this, but I think if they knew how to approach flow drills differently, they may find more value in them.

The Filipino martial arts are often taught in a way that is not well explained or not clearly structured. This makes it hard for the student to get the most out of the training. Sometimes people learn a variety of drills, but they do not always understand the drills completely. Because of this, the real value is sometimes missed.

The problem I often see is that many people just do not know how to practice flow drills in a way that moves their skills towards application. Here is why:

1. The drills have become an end instead of a training tool. Students work on getting good at the drill, but they often confuse getting good at the drill with being ready to apply the techniques within. Being able to flow with a drill may be a milestone in your growth, but being able to perform a flow drill is not the ultimate goal of your training. The purpose of training is to develop your ability to apply what you are learning. Learning to really apply techniques requires more skills than just flowing.

2. Movements are often overly abbreviated and are held to less stringent standards when part of a flow drill. Drills often only incorporate the initial entry of a technique, so that continuous flow is easier. Drills may also abbreviate movements such as footwork, so that the drill can continue without a change in range or position that would break the continuous exchange needed to allow the drill to continue in a loop.

Sometimes this abbreviation is taken too far. Whether it be for ease or speed, the critical technical movements are truncated or altered so much that their repetition does not contribute to training in a positive way. The movements are often incomplete, imprecise, or just plain sloppy. The result of this excessive abbreviation is that the drill becomes ineffective as a training tool.

Flow drills can be useful when used with a specific training purpose in mind. I believe that if instructors improve how they incorporate flow drills into their classes, then students will get more benefit from those drills. I believe with that improvement, flow drills can indeed be relative to sparring and remain an important part of skill development in the Filipino martial arts.

With this article, I hope to help students and instructors to get more value and function from the flow drills that are likely a large part of their chosen art.

Making your Flow Drills Functional

First, let's evaluate flow drills in order to better define them and to identify how we can get the most out of them. This starts with identifying the purpose behind them.


Know the purpose of the drill. If you know the purpose of the drill, then will you know what benefit to expect from it. Not all flow drills have the same purpose. Some flow drills are simply exercises for coordination. Some flow drills demonstrate how techniques can be used as attacks, counters, and recounters. Some flow drills illustrate how to use specific tactics such as baiting or setting up the opponent. Often drills incorporate more than one of these aspects. Once you understand the purpose, you will have direction for using the drill for your development.

When you know the purpose of the drill, you will immediately be able to align your practice of the drill with your training goals. Do you need more coordination? Spend more time on flow drills designed to develop coordination. Do you want to get better at techniques that can be used for attacks and counters? Then deepen your understanding and skill by training and analyzing the flow drills that illustrate just that. Once you understand the purpose of the drill, align your expectations with that purpose and analyze your training results. This approach will allow you to select the drill based on your training needs.

The Function Drill

The concept of a flow drill is broad. With a flow drill, really the only qualifier is that it must continue. I focus on a more structured type of flow drill called the function drill.

A function drill is a type of flow drill that demonstrates the functionality of techniques by putting them in a logical sequence and context. It is an exercise that combines one or more techniques in a way that follows a logical structure, not just a whimsical flow. In a function drill, flow is not random, it is informed with specific responses in mind. Though a function drill can have variables, each of those variables must fit within a logical framework that is based on realistic application.

A function drill can offer several benefits that support learning skills that are relevant to applying the techniques involved.

A function drill can inform you how techniques interface. When multiple techniques are combined into a function drill, you can see how they work together. By examining the drill, you can understand how one technique can be used to setup or counter another. Sometimes, differences in timing or position can change which technique is the best choice for the situation. Function drills can help you see those differences.

Function drills help you analyze the techniques they contain. When training function drills, you will begin to identify different options in applying the techniques. When you see how the techniques are used against each other, you will learn the strengths and weaknesses of each technique. You will see how they are countered and where their failure points are. If you train multiple function drills that contain some of the same techniques, you will learn how to can adapt those same techniques to different situations. This leads to a deeper understanding of the techniques themselves.

A function drill gives context to the techniques within it. When constructed logically, a function drill contains fragments of a very short scenario. The order in which the techniques are sequenced illustrates what techniques you can use, in that particular scenario, in order to win. This context allows you to understand and train to make the right reactions, should you find yourself in a similar situation.

Function drills help you learn to transition. Typically, function drills repeat in a continuous loop. This format will prevent you from ingraining a habit of stopping after completing a technique. You will instead develop a habit of moving continuously and without hesitation into the next technique.

With repetition of the drill and mindful corrections during each loop, you will learn to easily change from one technique to another. After exposure to many variations of function drills, you will - build a mental map of the transitions available, develop the ability to recognize the cues that indicate which transition is appropriate for various situations, and cultivate the coordination needed to execute the transitions efficiently.

Function drills help you solidify techniques in your memory. This is more than just getting muscle memory through repetition. When you only practice techniques individually, without context, you will have a harder time recalling the techniques later. In contrast, when you practice function drills, you will learn to associate various techniques that relate by their purpose, range, principle, or tactics involved. This creates a context. That context helps connect the techniques together in your mind.

This means that those techniques will be better integrated into your memory and experience, instead of being just a collection of techniques sitting in your toolbox. Because of this integration, those techniques will be easier to recall and draw upon when you want to access them.

Each of the topics above are worthy of their own articles, but hopefully the summaries above are enough to help you identify opportunities for drawing benefit from function drills.  Now, let's examine how to get more out of any flow drill that you train.

Improving the Use of Flow Drills

Focus on function and application, not just free flowing. When you practice the drill, make sure that the responses make sense. You are getting repetition each time you cycle through the drill. Use those repetitions to create movement patterns and responses that will serve you well. Free flowing drills have their place, but they should be second to functional flow drills.

Analyze each drill to determine what lessons are contained within. A drill may simply be a demonstration of how techniques fit together, but it may also contain lessons in timing, positioning, and other tactics. You might benefit from describing the drill in writing or creating a diagram of the drill to better be able to visualize details within it. This may give you a deeper perspective on how the parts all fit together.

Only after you become very familiar with a drill, will you be able to extract more subtle lessons from it. Give yourself a lot of time and multiple training sessions to examine the drills you practice.

Refine the individual techniques of the drill before putting them together in a flow. Train each of the techniques individually first. You need to have a good grasp of the techniques involved in order to benefit from the flow. If you are not yet familiar with the techniques, you may miss subtleties in the drill or even ingrain mistakes through the repetition of improper movements.

Make sure that you practice the complete, individual techniques often, so that those complete movements are the habit. Because the techniques of flow drills are often abbreviated, you are not developing the entire technique when practicing a flow drill. Unless you practice the entire movement thoroughly, you may later hesitate or even freeze because you have only practiced part of the technique. Make your techniques seamless by establishing a strong habit of completing them in their full form.

Even though you may intentionally abbreviate the techniques in a flow, keep the movement intact as much as possible. For example, often you must modify your footwork when applying the techniques so that you can cycle through the drill without getting too close to your partner. Instead of throwing the footwork out altogether, just make the steps smaller. At least you will maintain the habit of stepping. This is better than training with no footwork at all.

Use flow drills to test the threshold of your skills. When you practice a drill, start slow and make sure the details and form are sound. Speed up the drill. As you speed up, you may find some of your movements break down. They may become off-time, inaccurate, imprecise, or just ugly. When you add to the intensity of the drill by increasing the speed, you will find those breaking points easier to identify. Note what is going wrong, then slow down, dissect the movements, and refine each of the areas that need improvement. Once you refine those parts, put the drill back together and test again. This refinement will help you make improvements in control, accuracy, precision, speed, timing, observation, and understanding.

Final Thoughts

Drills are not fighting, they are simply tools for learning. Many drills we use in the course of training are not fighting, but they should contribute to the skillsets that allow you to fight. Flow drills are no different.

Determine the objectives and expected outcomes of any drill you do. This will allow you to get the most out of it.

Spend more time practicing function drills - flow drills that have a clear, logical, functional structure. You want to train specific and appropriate responses to your opponent’s attacks. Unstructured, free-flowing drills are good for testing and exploring, but not for training habits and establishing specific responses. Just make sure you are training the right balance of structured and unstructured drills to get the results you want.

Flow drills trained mindfully have a lot of value in your growth in the Filipino martial arts. Don’t throw them out until you have really evaluated how effective they can be in helping you reach your training goals.

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