COVID-19 and Jiu-Jitsu

7 min read
COVID-19 struck a hard blow to our communities, GYM’s, and Jiu-Jitsu way of life. We can learn some invaluable lessons from this unprecedented time in history to prevent GYM closers and months on end without training in the future.

COVID-19 and Jiu-Jitsu

COVID-19 struck a hard blow to our communities, GYM’s, and Jiu-Jitsu way of life. We can learn some invaluable lessons from this unprecedented time in history to prevent GYM closers and months on end without training in the future.  Lessons from the Pandemic

Boston, MA

It was just over a year ago that I was traveling regularly for both work and pleasure and training at some of my favorite academies all around the world. Back at my home academy, the emerging pandemic was dominating our conversations, and we were starting to wonder if a lockdown would be happening soon. We all figured that maybe we would shut down for a few weeks, and then slowly, things would come back to normal. But, two weeks became a month and then turned into a never-ending shutdown. 

For most of us, jiu-jitsu is not really a choice. Beyond keeping us in shape, it is our therapy and is where we connect with our community. Not training for an extended period of time was never really an option, and we had to find a way. 

As I reflect on the “year that should not be named,” I will highlight some of the ideas that I saw working and share some thoughts on how we could better prepare and protect our beloved sport.

One of the most important things that we learned from this pandemic is that everyone’s tolerance for risk is different. At first, there was clear panic as we didn’t understand the virus, and we didn’t know all the risk factors. During this time, the lockdown made sense. As we began to understand the risk factors, we knew we had to protect the populations most at risk. As for the rest of us, there was a pretty good chance that we would be ok after suffering for a week or so. On the other hand, we needed to evaluate the possibility of infecting our loved ones. For some, this risk would make training impossible.

As jiu-jitsu practitioners, we had a choice. Some chose to completely ignore the warnings and set up secret underground fight-clubs and hope for the best. Others were lucky to have access to a training partner of similar skill and with a similar risk profile. We could sometimes train at home with the understanding that this was the only risk we were willing to take. Many tried to do online training and practice with a family member, pet, or grappling dummy. Significant others and kids quickly learned to avoid us, the pets started to look at us weird, and the dummies just sat there. Companies making dummies did well, but most of those poor dummies will end up in a corner with dirty clothes on top, just like the Bowflex™ and treadmill.

As gym owners were forced to face the reality of opening with risk or closing down forever, we had to figure out ways to minimize risks and make sure students were comfortable training. Some decided to only do solo drills. Others decided that wearing a mask at all times was a must. And there were those who just went back to training as usual. But they all had one thing in common. At the first sign of someone not feeling well, measures were taken to protect the rest of the school. Some of the things we saw included reminding students to stay home if they didn’t feel well; that it was ok to skip class and it would not affect their progression. 

We also universally implemented additional cleaning and disinfecting steps. It is interesting to note that even without the pandemic, we should have been doing this. I am looking forward to the studies comparing the gym rates of MRSA and Ringworm infection before and after the pandemic. I’m pretty sure that, even when corrected by attendance, the incidence will be much lower for both.

It was also important to remind students that any risks they took outside the gym were risks to other students. Although we could not dictate what they did outside, their choices affect all of us. One effective way to deliver this message to the athletes was to say: “If you choose to go to a party and don’t maintain social distance, in effect, we all went to that party. It is a privilege to be able to train during this time. Don’t waste it. Protect your teammates”. We also tried to enforce quarantine periods and negative tests after traveling. Some gyms were not as successful at enforcing this, and occasionally small outbreaks occurred.

Some other ideas included pods, where people trained in smaller groups. For example, if you came Monday/Wednesday/Friday, you were not allowed at the gym on Tuesday/Thursday. This approach segmented the classes in case someone at a class got sick, thus allowing the gym to stay open while quarantining only some of the students. Another idea was to separate age groups and keep the higher-risk students training in smaller pods. For example, a masters (over 40, 50, etc.) class could be created to ensure those students limited their exposure from others. 

We worried about having one instructor teach all classes. If they got exposed and had to quarantine, everyone at the school had to do the same. Having multiple training groups (and instructors) certainly helped minimize this. Of course, the social aspect of jiu-jitsu is essential to many of us, but compromises had to be made. 

We also had to protect our gyms from outside exposure. As much as I’m a huge fan of cross-training, it just didn’t make sense during a pandemic. 

Finally, many of us had to control social media and community relations. We had to remind students and parents that it was a privilege to train during this time. Bringing unwanted attention from people who didn’t understand the measures we were implementing or had other agendas was not a good idea.

In the end, many of the measures we took may have been overkill. After all, although deadly to certain age groups and those with co-morbidities, the virus is not as deadly to the general population as we feared (partly thanks to scientific understanding and partly thanks to dumb luck). But we should learn from what worked and what didn’t. It is likely that this is not the last time an epidemic will affect many of us, and we should be prepared to handle it and adapt.

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