Things have changed. I do not think we can go back to the way things were before COVID-19. I cannot begin to fathom the new world we will step into one day when the quarantine is lifted, but let me imagine what the new grappling world will look like.
The word on the street is that things cannot really approach normal until we have a vaccine. And the most aggressive timeline for a vaccine could be 18 months. That means the earliest we could expect to even expect to be in large gatherings might not be until Halloween 2021. Even if there is a vaccine, there will not be enough for everyone and rationing will have to occur to get the vaccine to some of us but not others. So 2021 is not looking better than 2020, we should gear up for 2022. I know people are buzzing about opening things again soon, but I have to think it’s overly optimistic since we have no contact tracking, minimal testing, and no vaccine.
As far as we know, COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that is spread by droplets in saliva that are discharged through breathing, talking, coughing, sneezing and can be passed from direct inhalation or from contact with the virus and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. So considering the amount of human contact and breathing on one another that occurs during grappling, it is a very dangerous proposition. Furthermore, we believe the incubation period to be about two weeks. So let’s say I have my one super friend and training partner and he or she comes into contact with an infected person and contracts the virus. They might not show symptoms for two weeks and we could be rolling that whole time and then they show symptoms and then I show symptoms and then we have to go back and consider every person that we had contact with in the two weeks prior to the symptoms. Forget about ringworm, COVID-19 is going to really screw up grappling around the world.
That being said, having a single partner that you train with will likely be the safest way to continue to train in the future. Roommates and relatives are the best bet because you live together, but those of us that do not have live-in training partners will have to create some bizarre monogamous grappling relationships to continue to train.
If that is what grappling looks like for the next few years, then what does the jiujitsu school look like, if anything? I know my professor is considering allowing pairs of people to come in and train together for an hour at a time. The single training partner model is going to be really challenging but it is better than nothing. Can we scale that up in to small classes? Potentially, yes. But here’s an interesting conundrum, what about the uke? Will the instructor only demo and train with his uke? If we follow the basic idea that it’s safest to have only one partner, then that’s what will likely happen.
If the schools are going to have limited one-on-one training and very small group classes, that means a lot of students are going to be displaced. So a lot of people are going to be training at home. I’m sure many people have already started training at home.
Let’s look at the home school scenario. The demand for video instruction during this quarantine will be much much higher and continue to grow if more people opt to just train from home. You and your buddy in the basement drilling moves from a video instructional will be the most cost effective (and safest) way to get your training in. For between $500 and $1500 you can buy mats, a big screen, a grappling dummy, and a library of instructional videos. You can split that cost with your training buddy and you will recoup the cost of your average dojo membership in a few months. If group classes are limited then home training will become the most attractive option.
How can a jiujitsu school compete with the home school if group classes are no longer a viable option? The thing that videos do not offer that is essential to someone’s development is instructor feedback. Live instruction is far superior to video instruction because the instructor can give feedback to the students either in response to what they see or in response to the student’s direct questions. A student watching a video might not even know they’re doing something wrong and since there is no instructor to give feedback it is easy to spin your wheels doing stuff poorly or incorrectly for years. The BJJ instructor that thrives in the new world, will have to be very good at coaching their students remotely. Giving precise feedback and instruction over the internet is challenging enough and will extremely difficult in large Zoom type classes where your view of the class is subdivided into many tiny screens on your device. Chances are that live online classes will have to be limited to a number that the instructor can effectively coach or the participants will get frustrated and not feel they are getting value beyond what they could get from an instructional video. Also remote instruction will be hindered by the technology on both ends. Coaching from your phone will not be as effective as coaching from your iPad will not be as effective as coaching from a 40” screen. Also students rolling in dark basements with their phones propped against a shoe might not as much coaching as those that have better lighting and equipment which will make the coach’s job easier.
Remote private lessons will fill a need for both the student and the teacher. Students can get the majority of their techniques from a video can check in with their teacher weekly or monthly for a tune up. Furthermore, they may be able to submit some live footage for feedback. In the new world, a BJJ instructor should position themselves less as the purveyors of techniques but as the editor that can clean things up in post production. I imagine a world where two buddies go in on some mats and a large screen tv and spend a couple of hours a night drilling from instructional videos and live rolling. After a couple of weeks they sit down and list all the moves that they are still struggling with and book a private with their live instructor. The instructor analyzes and gives feedback and helps them tighten up the techniques they struggled with. This is not ideal but it is likely how a lot of jiujitsu is going to go down for a while.
I imagine many schools will continue to run online classes much like there traditional BJJ classes. Unfortunately those do not translate well to the online format. The typical BJJ class starts with a warmup which everyone would rather skip. You never do warmups on instructional videos, but that doesn’t mean a class shouldn’t do them. Working out or warming up together even online can be fun and helpful. Everybody practicing the same moves all at the same time can build some camaraderie. Leading the class through some exercises or stretches can be beneficial as well add some solo or partner drilling. After the warmup, there is the technique portion of class where the professor shows a technique and then you all practice on each other while the teacher presumably walks around and makes corrections. If you are teaching a purely online class, then the teacher will still need an uke to demonstrate on. It may make sense going forward that small group classes are simultaneous streamed online so students training from home can feel like they’re in a real class. This potentially cuts down labor and time and has a big upside if you can simultaneously have local people and remote people training with you at the same time. After the technique portion of class is randori, where people live spar with each other for several rounds. As we discussed this may only be rounds with a single person. The downside is that remotely it is hard to watch multiple matches at once and give any coaching or feedback. I think if classes continue to be held online, the randori will get set aside for more drilling.
What we have been focusing on initially on video platforms is group classes that focus on accessory elements that lend themselves to better performance on the mats. The initial offerings online have been breathing, meditation, flexibility, mobility, strength, conditioning, jiujitsu specific moves, and flows. These classes add a lot of value to the BJJ practitioner that always says, “I should work on _____, but I just don’t have the time.” Well now they have the time to work on that stuff and they should. So these offerings are filling a gap for many people.
Despite the online format being less desirable than live classes, they offer some benefits. They provide community and allow people to see each other and catch up. The classes provide a sense of normalcy in a time where many people feel like they are set adrift. Online classes are not restricted geographically. People that lived too far away from a school to be consistent can now easily click a link and join no matter the physical distance. This will potential allow greater access to more and better teachers as you can shop around the world for an online jiujitsu instructor.
The big names in jiujitsu that already have their online schools, have a leg up in this new world. However, that does not mean there’s no room for you and your online school. On the contrary, we know online jiujitsu schools can work and there is plenty of room on the internet for more. I think what we will start to see in the future is not so much the innovative techniques that separate school, but rather the innovative teaching. By and large, the vast majority of Brazilian Jiujitsu is all taught the same way. I think there is lot of room for improvement on how it’s taught and we will see more and more of that as teachers have to make their way in the post COVID-19 world.