The Real State Of Jiu Jitsu Gyms In The Wake Of Covid Lockdowns
Now that it has been just over a year since the pandemic started, the true long-term impacts of COVID-19 are starting to show. Martial arts schools are among those businesses that have been hardest hit, with Jiu Jitsu gyms having been absolutely devastated by the pandemic.
This article assesses the damage COVID has wrought on the BJJ community, as well as examining what sort of countermeasures have proven effective. Finally, if you’re a struggling gym owner, we at Jiu Jitsu Legacy are here to help! Send us a message and let’s get through this together.
Jiu Jitsu Gyms vs. COVID-19 – The Superfight of the Century
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gyms around the world have really struggled during the past year. When the pandemic first started it was hard to fathom that it would become a global plague that would be continuing unabated in 2021.
Even once it became obvious that the entire world was going to have to weather the storm dubbed COVID-19, nobody really thought that it could drag on for so long. At the moment, we have half or more of the world implementing measures to keep people from getting infected and literally billions of lives are directly impacted.
These impacts include protective measures that involve, among other things, social distancing and shutting down non-essential businesses. Unfortunately, this usually includes gyms of all types.
The reality of the situation was that measures were implemented differently across the world, and instead of managing the virus, the pandemic dug in even deeper into daily life. For most of the people that own Jiu Jitsu gyms, running them is their primary source of income, given how the time intensive nature of managing a gym. With lockdowns and safety measures preventing human contact persisting, albeit on and off, in excess of a year now, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s global expansion has come to a dead stop.
Even world-famous John Danaher was forced to relocate to sunny Puerto Rico in order to be able to train regularly with the top members of the Danaher Death Squad. Unfortunately, most other gym owners and instructors can not afford such radical measures, leaving them in the greatest global superfight of our lifetime: BJJ versus COVID-19 health and safety measures.
So far, BJJ looks like the underdog and is not really doing much to correct that impression.
The Real Gym Killers: Lockdowns and Safety Measures
If we do a specific analysis of how the pandemic has actually affected Jiu Jitsu gyms, it is easy to see that the real culprits are the protective measures that have been implemented world wide. Lockdowns and some aspects of social distancing pretty much make training contact sports like BJJ impossible.
To be abundantly clear, I am not saying the measures are not helping, nor that they are ineffective. However, there could have been, and should be a better way of implementing protective measures so that people can still do a physical activity of their choice.
Often safety measures are clumsily constructed and don’t offer the flexibility necessary for small businesses to survive. Lockdowns are a simple, albeit fundamentally imprecise tool. While you can perform surgery with a battle axe, you’d probably prefer your doctor use a scalpel.
What it boils down to is that intermittent and prolonged lockdowns have resulted in the permanent closure of many Jiu Jitsu gyms around the world. These closures could have arguably been avoided with a bit of calm analysis and less panic-driven decision making.
Social distancing measures are also destroying any hopes of meaningful training within the grappling community. Social distancing on a country-wide level makes lots of sense, particularly in places where people mingle in huge numbers, like supermarkets. Enforcing the same in gyms where there are a limited number of members working together in a controlled environment, defies logical thinking.
While the measures implemented around the world have helped slow the spread of COVID-19, they have also brought about the demise of many BJJ, MMA, and martial arts gyms.
Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back
When COVID-19 was spiraling out of control, the consensus seemed to be that vaccines would be the solution. However, we’ve now seen that vaccines are just one more step towards a solution and are not the instant fix everyone had hoped for.
The vaccine roll-outs have been slowed by uncertainty, technical challenges, and the overwhelming logistical problems of administering hundreds of millions of shots. This has meant that over a year after the first lockdowns began, countries are still resorting to lockdowns as they see spikes in the number of infected people.
Since reopening, BJJ academy owners and instructors have first and foremost, faced challenges in terms of social distancing protocols which are blind to the nature of contact sports (contact being the operative word).
Currently, protocols around the world require that gyms operate at a diminished capacity and implement some kind of social distancing involved. The specifics vary from country to country, but it generally boils down to providing every athlete their own space. Perfect for Zumba or CrossFit, not so much for Jiu Jitsu or Judo!
Even outside of legal restrictions, many gyms that are reopening are having a hard time getting people through the door. The public’s perception is that BJJ is still unsafe, even though there are established safety protocols that have been proven to work.
Even in countries like the UK which have implemented massive vaccination programs it is not easy for martial arts gyms to return to normal. With uncertainty still afoot, there’s only so many times that a gym can reopen and then be forced to close before it has to permanently close its doors.
Paired with the mandatory small groups and unchanged rent rates and you can see why BJJ gym owners would rather try and defend themselves from Gordon Ryan’s back takes than try to stay afloat in such an environment.
No Gym is Safe From COVID’s Fallout
As a Jiu Jitsu gym owner, I found out first hand that the unique nature of BJJ training means that most attempts at holding online classes or trying to figure out how to hold no-contact live classes are futile. Apart from trying to woo people into paying a fee, there’s no real point to training like this, and most coaches who hold the sport in any regard quickly learned the same.
The issue is that while a gym remains closed, most rent fees and other debts keep piling up. Some countries have offered stimulus measures but it is not nearly enough to try and make ends meet when a gym is closed, intermittently opened, or open under conditions that take all the desirability out of Jiu Jitsu training.
This growing debt has brought about the merciless and permanent closing of many Jiu Jitsu gyms around the world, including some which many did not think were in danger.
There are many examples of gyms having to close down for good around the world, and not just small, local gyms. The highest profile closure was probably Gary Tonon’s school which shut down in 2020 after just a few months of lockdowns.
Jeff Curran, a UFC veteran, also had to close his training center which he opened up in 2018 after months of preparation and construction. Even though he had a 10-year lease and the gym had previously been growing, there was no way to salvage it as lockdowns dragged on and on.
3D Treening, the largest sports club in Estonia and home of popular instructor Priit MIhkelson, was also forced to close its doors due to the inability of keeping up with rent debts, despite many members of the club and community contributing to help the gym.
In one year, the situation with Jiu Jitsu gyms has drastically changed from sharing lots of “Keep paying your gym fee” memes in March 2020, to clubs shutting down in spring 2021 despite some members still doing their best to support them.
The sad truth is that many gyms will face the same fate unless there is a consensus to be found with authorities that will allow for unimpeded, yet COVID-safe BJJ training.
A Personal Point of View
I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones when it comes to how my academy has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic. The academy in question is Carlos Maia BJJ Academy in Skopje, Macedonia. Before the pandemic, we were growing steadily, looking to hit 150 members somewhere around April 2020. However, the first round of lockdowns began and put a stop to those aspirations.
After 103 days of no training in 2020, gyms were allowed to open up again. Looking to provide people with a positive experience in terms of both safety and training BJJ in a meaningful way, I used the time off to devise protocols that could keep people safe. As a result I created a training bubble of sorts.
The usual measures of taking people’s temperature and having them clean their hands and shoes before entry were non-negotiable starting points. From this foundation I devised a safe system that encourages member awareness of how everyone can keep their fellow gym members safe and healthy.
I put up nylon barriers, about 2 and a half feet high running across the gym on a frame of bamboo sticks. The heavy, industrial nylon can be cleaned easily and effectively, just like the mats themselves. The barriers provided us with 5 mat spaces, each big enough for a pair of people to train in.
An online based questionnaire was the first thing people had to complete. It both raised awareness and introduced the training system to people. Everyone coming in had to pick a partner, and they were committed to training with that person for the foreseeable future. Moreover, all 5 pairs that came in a specific time for class, had to stick together in the schedule.
A rotation system in terms of dressing rooms meant people from successive groups never met each other, and spraying the mats in between the groups also eased people’s minds and reduced risk.
After three months of the “pairs system,” we even opened up to multiple smaller groups of 12 to 15 people and allowed people to roll with multiple partners at the end of class, just like in the good old days.
All in all, we managed to go almost a year (before another lockdown was put in place and is still in effect as of May 2021) without a single case of COVID-19 happening in the gym.
At the moment, I am waiting for an almost two-month long lockdown to end next week, so we can reopen again. The pairs system will not be employed this time around, but rather the multiple smaller groups directly. Over a year later we’ve managed to keep enrollment at about 80 members throughout a COVID-ridden year, including a couple of kids groups.
Of course I was lucky, given that the gym is not my primary source of income (although it is an important one). That said, the moral of this story is that we can play by the rules and still manage to train a close quarters contact sport while staying safe and COVID-free. It isn’t easy though, as I spent 12 hours a day in the gym during the “pairs system.” Every day!
How Can We Help?
WhIle the COVID-19 impact is felt by everyone, the BJJ community is a legendarily tight knit one. So, we here at Jiu Jitsu Legacy would like to try and play our part in helping Jiu Jitsu gyms stay afloat and keep their doors open.
What we can offer is to raise as much as possible for any interested gym helping to set up donation campaigns. Of course, it comes without saying that we are also ready to share the stories of academy owners and their battle with COVID-19, in order of raising awareness and pointing the help for the BJJ community towards those in need.
We are also open to share our experiences with running Jiu Jitsu gyms during a pandemic, ranging from systematic approaches like above, to setting up underground fight club-style open mat sessions. Hit us up and we’ll be happy to help!
COVID-19 has been merciless, and not just in terms of direct health consequences.However, this too shall pass, there is no doubt about it.
In the meantime the effect of the measures taken to relieve the COVID-19 impact have made it hard for BJJ gyms to stay afloat, both during lockdowns and during the procedures for re-opening. Many gyms have closed their doors permanently, but there are solutions out there that might just help prevent this happening to anyone else.
We will be happy to help in any way we can! Let us know how COVID-19 has impacted your gym and we’ll do what we can to lend a helping hand!
Ogi is a brown belt and very passionate about Jiu Jitsu.
He is also the head coach of Carlos Maia BJJ Macedonia and Globetrotter.