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  • Jessica Howard

10 Ways to Train During the Pandemic




Our dojo closed down from April to August 2020 because of lockdowns and social distancing rules. I train in jiujitsu, one of the most close-quarters and full-contact martial arts around. I’ve always told people when explaining it, jiujitsu like any martial art requires a partner. You need someone to attack you in order to practice responding. Well, all that got thrown right out the window thanks to Covid-19.


And here we are in February 2021, and while vaccines are starting to become more available, there’s still no quick end to this in sight. A few of us have disappeared from the school. I’m sure it’s like that in a lot of places. However, we do what we can, and although I may have had a head start a few years back due to an injury (more about that later), we’ve now learned to modify our training in order to get the most we can while we can’t train normally.


Here are 10 ways I’ve been training during the pandemic:


1. Taking socially-distanced, in-person classes:

For those of us who choose to go to the dojo (I highly recommend it if you haven’t yet), it’s limited capacity and there is no contact practicing (except for rare and minimal contact demonstration). What it does focus on are the very basic movements of self-defense: striking combinations, tai sabaki (body movement) and going through our school’s lower belt techniques together. The chance to watch my teacher move through these techniques and have him explain some the movements in ways that I may not have heard before is very helpful. For those of us who don’t have a convenient (or homemade) striking pad at home, the dojo is great for being able to hit the BOBs (Body Opponent Bags). Hitting a target is much more realistic than throwing strikes in the air, which, while it’s great for form, balance, and exercise, doesn’t help train the body to feel impact and recognize distance and resistance.


2. Taking Zoom classes:

My teacher started offering classes on Zoom as well, so we hold in-person classes with a camera for the students who join in from home. Although I have felt the effects of “Zoom fatigue”, not having to wear a mask while exercising is a definite perk, as well as avoiding the commute to the dojo on subways that have more people than ideal during a pandemic—some of whom simply refuse to mask up even when it’s the rules.


3. Reading through the techniques on my belt list:

A little background: back in 2005, I tore the ACL in my left knee, and had to have surgery to reattach it. I was out of class for a year and I might have left for good (I’ve seen this happen to other people) but my teacher told me something helpful. He said, if you’re injured, you’re more likely to be a target on the street, so all the more reason you should keep training. You just modify how you do it.


And that’s exactly I did. I did my physical therapy and exercised as much as I could. I went through my belt list regularly and went through the motions of the techniques I’d learned. I practiced techniques on my family to the best of my (and their) ability. One thing I did then and still do even now, when I read through the techniques on my belt list, I mentally visualize someone attacking me, and practice the motions of the response to match the level of that perceived attack. Now spending inordinate amounts of time at home and unable to train with a partner most of the time, I naturally came back to doing this. Taking some time to look at the list and going through the motions of the techniques (or practicing on my daughter), I’m seeing new things, coming up with new questions, and it’s making me excited about the prospect of returning to regular class as soon as that’s allowed again.


4. Practicing techniques alone or on loved ones

Some students are lucky or smart enough to have a spouse or child who trains in jiujitsu. My daughter took jiujitsu when she was very young but hasn’t for a long time. Still, she’s a body. Whenever I can, I carefully go through techniques with her to maintain that muscle memory sense of contact, where my hand or forearm touches her elbow to get an arm lock, etc. I take advantage as much as possible of those generous people in my household who stand there patiently and allow me to practice the body mechanics and physics of jiujitsu movements on them—some very carefully, of course!


5. Staying fit

I know I will be back on the mat in the next year (fingers crossed) and don’t want to lose the physical level of fitness that I had when I was grappling and taking falls regularly. I need to find ways to make up for the intensity of partner training. I do this by going to my downstairs gym and riding the stationary bike, doing calisthenics, and watching workout videos. There are plenty of ways to get exercise as long as you’ve got a bit of space and the internet.


6. Reading books and watching videos on martial arts, self-defense and fighting

I’m using this time to learn more about the jiujitsu/jujutsu tradition and history, various styles of martial arts, as well as watching self-defense videos, videos on street fights and attacks, and new and old combat sport videos.


7. Practicing zanshin

As I’m sure anyone incorporating the Japanese martial arts concept of zanshin (“total awareness”) into daily life knows, there are a lot of angry, upset, desperate, disgruntled and disenchanted people out there. I get hourly updates on the Citizen app about shenanigans in my neighborhood ranging from “man wielding knife” to “man shot” to “men assaulting woman” and the like. I feel a lot less safe going out at night than I did a year ago. Because of social distancing, I’m a lot more aware of my personal space and when someone is encroaching on it. Now is the time to put this concept into practice. At the same time, I try to be aware of other people—not just in terms of my own safety, but our collective well-being. If I’m out in the street, I try to recognize that someone else may have lost a loved one to Covid, or is still unemployed, before engaging in any type of banter or acting selfishly. It’s a great time to turn the negative into an opportunity to externalize and take responsibility for our communities.


8. Practicing mushin

Another concept familiar to jiujitsu, mushin (“no mind”) is the way to zanshin. It’s letting go of any of that trivial anxiety and inner dialog that not only gets in the way of awareness, but also adds to the stress we are all facing in these uncertain and ever-changing circumstances.


9. Staying in touch with my dojo and my teacher

Our dojo is a community, and all of us who have gained protection, self-confidence, health and new friends have a second home there. As students and instructors, we can all help each other through this time to maintain our strength and even to create something greater. I am happy to have opportunities to speak with my fellow students and depend on my teacher for guidance as well as the ability to offer help to the school thrive during this time, in whatever way I can.


10. Teaching classes in-person and on Zoom:

This applies to those of us who are instructors; It’s a blessing for me to be able to share what I know. Teaching is a more intensely focused type of learning. Because I have to explain the techniques in detail, I learn them more thoroughly and gain more confidence in my ability to execute them. During the pandemic I’ve been focusing on ground solo drills. A lot of self-defense on the ground follows the same principles and techniques as standing; however, the mechanics are slightly different. Practicing these drills develops our ability to move, escape, control, and distance on the ground, as well as to protect ourselves falling and getting back to our feet quickly.