A martial Artist's Guide to Coping with COVID

The Coronavirus Is Pummeling Our Community, But We Can Take a Punch — and We're Rallying for a Comeback!

As the world reels in response to COVID-19 and scrambles to take action to curb further spread of the coronavirus, it's never been more apparent that we live in dangerous times. Interestingly, if we look to ancient warrior wisdom, we can find some of the answers we need to battle the hidden enemy of today. One such key comes from a well-known Chinese principle that was famously repeated by Sun Tzu: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of 100 battles."


Sun Tzu's message was that we will never be in danger if we possess knowledge. The concept applies as much to martial arts students and school owners as it does to me, a health-care provider. It's particularly applicable in the effort to mitigate COVID-19 and in the leadership we need to face this threat.

The basic principle entails knowing ourselves and knowing our opponent so we will know how our opponent can harm us. Our opponent, in this case, is the coronavirus. To prevent that harm, we need to understand how the virus functions, how it survives in the body and how it attacks. Only when that's done can we focus on defeating it. Best part is, even as we work toward our eventual victory, this knowledge will help reduce the impact of the pandemic.

Know the Enemy

To combat this adversary, we need to know what a virus is and how it spreads. Let's begin by looking at the name of the disease: COVID-19. The CO comes from "corona," the VI from "virus" and the D-19 from "December 2019." That date, by the way, refers to when the virus was first identified as a possible threat.

Wikipedia presents the following additional information: "A virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. There are millions of viruses in the environment. Viruses are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and are the most numerous type of biological entity."

Now that we know a little more about our adversary, let's assess the threat the way a martial artist assesses an opponent in a fight — specifically, by asking, How can I defeat this enemy?

So what type of enemy is the coronavirus? If I had to describe it in martial arts terms, I'd say it has much in common with stealth arts like ninjutsu. The virus advances, lies in wait and then attacks, all while remaining invisible and silent.

Know Yourself

To replicate itself and mount an attack, the coronavirus needs us. Specifically, it needs access to our cellular machinery. It follows that if we deny the virus entry into our bodies, we can destroy its ability to wield our own cellular machinery against us.

To shore up our internal defenses against the virus, we also should practice good nutrition and hydration, and stay active. This will boost our immune response to any kind of invasion.

To slow the spread of COVID-19 within the martial arts community, we need to think "physical distancing," which means adhering to the official recommendation for social distancing while keeping in contact with the people from whom we're forced to separate. Fortunately, the internet and social media in particular make this easy. In the beginning, it might seem difficult to get used to this new method for staying in touch with our teachers while our dojo are closed, but it's crucial. Research shows that most people who no longer participate in a specific activity will reset — in other words, find something else to fill the void — after four to five weeks. That means if we do nothing to keep our interest alive, we're at risk of moving on, and that would mean losing out on all the life benefits that being a martial artist brings.

Maintaining contact with our instructors online will ensure that our skills stay sharp while we train at home. A fringe benefit is that exercising will improve our fitness and thereby maximize our immune response, which enables our bodies to fight back against this enemy.

You Need Not Fear

We now know our enemy, the coronavirus. We know that it can be transmitted through airborne particulate spread. This means that the government's advice to wear a mask in public can protect us from cross-contamination and cross-infection. It also can reduce the viral footprint, thus protecting others.

We also know that the coronavirus can be transmitted through direct contact — which is why hand washing is crucial. The general rule is use anti-bacterial soap even though the disease is caused by a virus. We need to wash vigorously for at least 20 to 30 seconds, making sure we've removed rings, bracelets and other articles from the area. (Don't forget to wash those rings and bracelets, as well.) When we're in public, it's recommended that we allow our hands to air-dry rather than risk possible recontamination with a paper-towel dispenser.

When we can't wash, hand sanitizer is a valuable weapon to have in our arsenal. It can be carried in a small personal-use dispenser in a pocket or in a larger pump dispenser in a gym bag or purse. Many of the businesses that are still open have stationed pump dispensers in strategic locations so customers can access them. Using them is better than doing nothing, but remember that because they're being handled by others, they can be a vector for recontamination.

When our martial arts schools start to reopen, additional measures will need to be taken. School owners will need to be proactive to manage the risks their students face. Among the additional decontamination precautions are using alcohol-based sprays to disinfect mats, stretching rails, mirrors, weight equipment and surfaces in restrooms and locker rooms. We must keep track of all cleanings and post the record in a visible area. This will help ensure that a regular schedule is maintained, and it will demonstrate to the public that we're doing all that we can to defeat the threat. Furthermore, we should remind our students that if they're unsure whether a particular item or surface has been sanitized, they should assume it hasn't and clean it before using.

Finally, there is the subject of martial arts gear, including items intended for sparring, for weapons practice and for fitness. If you're a student, bring your own gear to class once your school reopens. If you don't own what you need, buy it now. Possession is the only way you can ensure that it's properly cleaned.

If you're an instructor at a dojo that has gear for students to borrow in class, it must be cleaned after every use. Afterward, it should be stored in a locker or cabinet that's also sanitized on a regular basis.

Although the advice presented in this article might sound extreme, most of the recommended mitigation efforts are common sense. The problem escalates when we neglect to keep ourselves and our areas clean. Remember that the coronavirus is like a ninja imbued with secret powers and unlimited perseverance. To triumph, we must be persistent in our own efforts. We must know our enemy and know ourselves. In that way, we can effectively employ the weapons we have: soap and water, masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer and, most important, situational awareness and common sense.

Dane S. Harden is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served as a medical officer for 35 years. His many NATO deployments have sent him on combat operations around the globe. A senior flight surgeon at the time of his retirement, he now works in primary-care medicine. Harden holds black belts in taekwondo, yoshinkan aikido and kickboxing. He's trained under Jhoon Rhee, Joe Lewis, Kevin Blok and Dana Abbott. For more information, visit westernmastersmartialarts.com.

Teaching Without Contact

For those instructors whose schools are temporarily closed — which is likely most of you — 10th-degree black-belt Floyd Burk offers the following teaching tips:

  • Talk to your online students like they are right there with you. Try to make them laugh so they enjoy your virtual classes.
  • Think about the space in which they might be training. Remind them to be careful of siblings, pets, lamps and so on.
  • Be creative in helping online students find training props like pillows to use as kicking pads, pool noodles to use as bokken and so on.
  • Know that kata practice is perfect for training during the quarantine because there's no need for a partner. Have your online students drill their kata at least twice a week. Mix it up. In one class, have them go through all their kata multiple times. In the next class, break down one or two sections of a kata. They will enjoy hearing you explain the finer points of the moves.
  • Don't just wing it. Take time to make a lesson plan and then run through your online class with a timer. Include a bit of supplemental content in case you stampede through the material — which can happen when students aren't there in person — and you need to fill out the allotted time. This urge to hurry can be exacerbated by the adrenaline rush that often accompanies teaching live on Facebook, Zoom or whatever.
  • Make sure there's a way for online students to ask questions, make comments and generally feel like they're part of the class.
  • When social distancing is eased, consider weapons training. Long weapons like the naginata, bo and katana are great for noncontact partner practice.
  • Pay attention to how your assistants communicate to your students while your school is closed. Encourage them to avoid sounding hopeless.
  • Finally, send an email to all your students, explaining that your dojo's solvency depends on them continuing to pay their tuition even if they don't attend class physically. Tell them you're counting on them supporting the school through this national crisis.

Making Masks

With the coronavirus ravaging communities and shutting down martial arts–related businesses all over the planet, some are fighting back against the outbreak the best way they know how.

Century Martial Arts, one of the world's largest manufacturers of martial arts equipment and uniforms, has turned a portion of its production facility in Oklahoma City over to making medical masks.

"We actually saw this coming a little earlier than others because we have partners over in China," said Michael Dillard, Century's vice president of special projects. "So we knew from them how serious the situation was and how it completely shut down their infrastructure."

The company began testing whether its employees could manufacture surgical masks in early February. The process required a certain type of sewing machine, and fortunately, they still had a few of the older models in storage. Although it was a costly process, the company's managers learned that they could do it — just in case there turned out to be a need.

By the middle of March, the worst had obviously come to pass, and medical personnel around the United States were facing shortages. The need for all sorts of protective equipment became dire.

When Century discovered local hospitals were about to run out of masks, it ramped up its efforts working with OU Medical Center to improve the quality of the masks they had manufactured while bringing down the cost. The company was able to supply 1,000 mask covers — outer masks that keep clean the high-quality N95 masks that medical professionals employ, thus allowing for longer use — just in time.

The company anticipates that it will continue to manufacture 1,000 medical-related masks per week as long as there's a need for them. Besides the mask covers, Century also has begun producing standard surgical masks, and it's working on a version of the high-end N95 mask that includes a filter.

While limited by the number of sewing machines that can make these items, Century has turned 20 percent of its workforce over to mask manufacture. Although it's prohibited from selling its masks to the public, the company has received 10,000 disposable masks from overseas, which it's donating to first responders and key members of the local martial arts community.

Perhaps surprisingly, the company hasn't seen a downturn in the overall sales of its standard martial arts products. Instead, management is seeing a shift in emphasis. Whereas orders for things like uniforms and belts have decreased, the purchase of training equipment has increased as martial artists, confined to their homes, look for new ways to continue practicing.

"We've seen our sales completely flip-flop like that," Dillard said. "But martial artists are inherently adaptable to the situation."

Fortunately for medical personnel in Oklahoma, martial arts equipment companies are adaptable, as well. — Mark Jacobs

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