Martial arts are back

Quebec allows the resumption of combat sports in gyms, with additional health measures.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial arts discipline that is considered a staple in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) for its effectiveness and reliability in both grappling offence and defence. At its core, the practice involves controlling opponent posture in numerous wrestling situations, and utilizing leverage and momentum in order to minimize energy consumption.

The discipline enables high-level practitioners to neutralize much larger unskilled opponents. The best are able to turn a compromising situation into a submission (victory by way of surrender) by catching opponents in chokeholds or joint locks.

The combat sport requires constant application of techniques to instill learned concepts, and requires at least one sparring partner. As a result, public classes of up to 20 students were commonplace before the shutdown.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, martial arts gyms face unique challenges in reopening to the public. Unlike other activities that can be practiced independently, BJJ and grappling — by nature — does not adhere to social distancing protocol.

On Sept. 1, the Quebec government allowed combat sports gyms to reopen, so long as they follow public health standards. For passionate BJJ instructor and decades-long practitioner Vittia Thong, owner of the Jiu-Jitsu school Studio Momentum in Brossard, the announcement was a pleasant surprise.

When the announcement came out for weight lifting gyms to reopen earlier in the summer, the government [put] it in effect the week after,” Thong said. “I was shocked to learn that we could open the day after the announcement.”

On top of his love for BJJ, Thong is a trained kinesiologist and osteopath. During the gym’s shutdown, the facility was temporarily re-designed to better accommodate his clients seeking physical aid. Things now have to be rearranged again, a process which has already delayed the gym’s reopening by a week.

Despite the reopening announcement, there are a number of limitations that martial arts gyms must heed. Members in such clubs must train in organized bubbles of up to four people. Individuals within these bubbles train exclusively together, and cannot swap groupings without proper justification. Each member must sign a consent form acknowledging the health risks, and no more than 10 people can be in the facility at any given time.

Junior Education Minister Isabelle Charest made it clear in the announcement that reopening these institutions does not permit care-free behaviour, as combat sports are dangerous from a transmission standpoint.

Luckily, Studio Momentum’s premise is large enough to accommodate two bubbles while maintaining social distance under the latest government guidelines. Thong’s plan for the future involves expanding the gym to the studio next door for additional space that could be used for his clinical work or for BJJ classes.

I really want to expand but I think it’s most important now to be smart about the virus situation,” Thong said. “I’ve wanted to expand the business since last year, but you never know these days.”

Before the shutdown, members would attend classes on average twice a week. Thong has been working on a structure that would separate his students into bubbles that would have strict individual schedules. Each grouping will have two specific weekly time slots of classes.

Thong has also invested in training dummies that will serve as backup in the event of absences, or if a student is uncomfortable with being in close proximity to another person. While masks are highly encouraged, they can be omitted if everyone in a given bubble consents to doing so.

In theory, learning the discipline will remain the same, as the techniques and strategies taught are unaffected by these new training conditions; however, Thong believes that the biggest change will be felt in practice.

Students will build camaraderie within their own bubbles as they will continuously be training with the same partners. As a result, Thong envisions his students to pick up on each other’s habits and make the necessary adjustments. The education that comes with observing multiple people in larger varied groups will be eliminated, however.

“A student’s knowledge will expand as he or she will encounter more different experiences,” Thong said. “That’s why learning amongst 20 peers versus three is a big drop off, but we have no choice but to accept these conditions and live with the consequences.”

While the new procedures may represent a challenge at first, passionate martial artists will happily embrace this new hindered training reality after being away from their gyms for nearly six months.


Photo by Liam Sharp

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