Keys to Conquering COVID

Every martial arts school owner I know is suffering right now — some are in dire straights and some are just "in a pickle." In my 40 years of running a dojo, I've never seen anything like what's happened to our industry since March of this year.

When I started writing this column, we'd just passed the 100-day mark since residents of California were last allowed to provide on-site martial arts instruction, whether at a commercial school, a rec center, a YMCA or any other facility. Fortunately, we just got the "go" signal from our county. Now, businesses like mine can reopen.

The first thing we did was post on our Facebook page: "Classes at the dojo begin this Friday!" That was the easy part. The hard part is ongoing. It entails confronting the fact that because the coronavirus is still with us, we all face unprecedented restrictions that vary according to our state and even our county.

The following are my suggestions for conducting classes under these conditions. I'll assume that you're already up to speed on sanitizing, cleaning and so on.

At my dojo, we immediately changed the way we organize our classes. No physical contact is allowed. Increased spacing is mandatory. We now hold more classes per day to make up for being required to limit the number of students in each session, which is needed to accommodate "kick space." (That's the term I use to refer to the recommended 6-foot gap between people because I detest the term "social distancing.")

Like you probably did, we launched an online program. Although several platforms are available — including Zoom, Google Meet and Facebook Live — we elected to concentrate on Facebook Live, which means anybody can watch. In the near future, we'll switch to Facebook Groups so we can control who's training with us online. We didn't do this from the get-go because we deemed it necessary to make it as simple as possible for people to connect with us.

In case you're still on the fence about starting online classes, I highly recommend that you do so — with plans to continue doing so even after you're permitted to reopen your dojo. That's because some students or their parents just won't be comfortable with the idea of returning to your school until the coronavirus is no longer a concern. In the meantime, you need every student you can keep — for their sake and yours.

By the way, you shouldn't be depressed about your temporary low student count. Remember back when you started and didn't have any students? Be patient. We all will get back to where we were and then some — it's just going to take time.

One more thing: Rank advancement is important for motivation. People need purpose and incentive. Consequently, you need to create a method for those who attend online classes to be promoted. That also includes providing a safe way for them to receive belts and certificates. We decided to offer two ways to do that: Visit the school during regular hours or pick them up curbside.

Versatility and adaptability are the keys to running in-person classes at this juncture. Focus on teaching techniques, tactics and skills that students can do without a partner. Don't listen to cynics who tell you that you can't adapt your curriculum for online classes. We teach karate, an art that features plenty of forms and methods that can be practiced solo.

Some things, however, do need modification. Recently, I was explaining to a group of students the various ways we can do drills and practice sets for the ground-fighting component of our curriculum. One member, a tough guy who does BJJ in addition to holding a black belt in our system, vehemently disagreed. "The mat doesn't lie," he said. "If you can't go mano a mano, it's a waste of time."

I reject that line of thinking. There's no reason we can't practice our sweeps, throws and holds in sets without a partner. Afterward, we can practice them in sequences that make things fun. Variations include doing the moves as defenses against attacks from different directions and using our BOB dummies for coordinated striking and kicking. No partner required!

Note: If your school doesn't have a few BOBs, get some now.

If your curriculum includes situational self-defense techniques, you should invest some time in devising creative ways for your students to practice them. We organized our self-defense combinations into 10 sets of three techniques each. While envisioning an opponent, we select one set and practice it five times. Then we treat each set as a kata and do the first repetition to the front, the second to the right rear and the third to the left rear. We also apply them to the eight directions of attack, calling out a direction from which an attack is coming so the student is forced to react appropriately.

Don't listen to cynics who tell you that you can't adapt your curriculum for online classes. We teach karate, an art that features plenty of forms and methods that can be practiced solo.

Another thing we've done is offer special classes for at-risk students. We do this twice a week and limit participation to those who are age 60 or older. Depending on your school's demographics, you may want to do likewise.

Because space is more important than ever, especially if you run a small dojo like ours, we opted to have students use the 4-foot-long jo instead of the standard 6-foot-long bo for kobudo practice. We also allow them to wield short weapons such as the kama, nunchaku and sai indoors. If they're interested, we let them take up this portion of our program at a lower rank than in the past.

No matter which weapon is being used, we urge them to come up with their own freestyle moves. Although I consider our school traditional with eclectic overtones, we try to keep what we do contemporary.

Example: We adopted a number of staff techniques that were featured online when Century Martial Arts posted its "staff technique of the month" videos. Search for "Century Flow System" for more information. It's proved popular with our existing students, and we've found it useful for bringing in new people.

Throughout all these changes, it pays to think and act in a positive manner. If you're a school owner, no doubt you're facing a monumental challenge that began as something you were told would last a few weeks but has morphed into a seemingly never-ending story. Don't commiserate too much with your colleagues — I went down that path for a short time, but my wife Martha snapped me out of it. Her wise words: "We are martial arts instructors. We are warriors. We are survivors. We will survive."

Floyd Burk is a San Diego–based 10th-degree black belt with 50 years of experience in the arts. To contact him, visit Independent Karate Schools of America at

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