I’ve been getting a lot of questions about COVID 19 (coronavirus) and BJJ, so let’s have some straight talk…
My approach to this comes from three perspectives…
- I’ve trained in the martial arts for 40 years and got my BJJ black belt 14 years ago…
- I have both a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in biology and have been following the science around this virus fairly carefully…
- I’m also a first responder, having served with the fire department for 20 years and having responded to countless medical calls.
Bottomline: I think we’re in big trouble. Really. Big. Trouble.
And I don’t think we should be training, at least not in the way that we normally do.
In fact, I’m totally willing to bribe you not to train. Click here to find out more about my free instructional giveaway for anyone refraining from hitting the mats right now, plus 50% off on all subsequent instructionals.
Below is what I said on Twitter on March 5th, before most people thought it was a big deal in North America. And I’ve gotten significantly more cautious since then…
Unpopular opinion: I don’t think that training with lots of different people during the coronavirus outbreak is a good idea at all. A better vector for virus spread with your clothes on cannot be imagined. I am doing my training only with a very small group of people one-on-one.
— StephanKesting (@StephanKesting) March 6, 2020
Let me explain…
Table of Contents
The Big Problem
One of the big problems with this virus is that it’s contagious BEFORE there are symptoms.
That means you could be rolling around with someone who seems perfectly fine, not the slightest cough or any indication of fever, and they can still give you the damn thing.
But maybe you’re 20 years old. If so you might reasonably object that this virus mostly affects old people.
And that’s roughly true. Based on early mortality studies coming out of places like China and Korea the older you get the more likely you are to die from it.
Let me rebut this a few different ways…
First of all, even if you don’t die getting COVID might really suck . Some people who have recovered from it have described it as being suffocated alive
But let’s say that you’re young, dumb, healthy and athletic. You think that if you get it you might not suffer very much. And you may even be right…
But even if you’re not badly affected you could still transmit it to your parents, the grocer, the little old lady sitting next to you on the bus and kill them.
And furthermore, the slower this thing spreads then the more time society and the medical system has to prepare.
It’s called ‘flattening the curve‘ and you’re going to hear a lot about it in the days and weeks to come…
Flattening the Curve
The basic idea of flattening the curve is this…
Let’s say that that no matter what we do the same number of people are ultimately going to be infected by COVID 19.
In that case it’s MUCH better if we slow things down so that if you or I or your grandmother needs a doctor and a ventilator then one is available.
In the diagram above the blue shape and the yellow shape have the same number of people in them. The blue shape is what happens when everyone gets the disease all at once.
Read this excellent article in the Atlantic about the situation in Italian hospitals to get a sense of what it looks like when the medical system is overrun. The doctors are literally having to decide who lives and who dies because they can’t treat everyone.
Flattening the curve is a reasonable approach at this point now that containment has failed, which is why you’re seeing universities, concerts and the NBA shut down.
I know you love to train. I do too. But don’t be a selfish douchebag and undermine one of the only things that’s going to help save lives.
A Crash Course on the Science
There’s a TON of information and misinformation out there about this virus – some of it politically motivated – and it’s hard to sort out fact from fiction.
Two really good podcast episodes that passed my biologist’s sniff test were the Joe Rogan talking with Michael Osterholm (JRE #1439) and Sam Harris talking with Nicholas Christakis (Making Sense #190).
Here’s Joe Rogan…
And here’s Sam Harris…
If you listen to both of those episodes you’ll be fairly well caught up on the present state of the science.
Now a lot of people are saying things like ‘the mortality rate of this thing is no worse than the flu.’ And then, if they cite a source at all, they quote some random doctor they know and/or Sean Hannitty
At this point I don’t think that any one doctor’s interpretation is to be trusted. I’m going to go with two sources: articles published in places like the Lancet, Science, and Nature, and the scientists and epidemiologists who work at the World Health Organisation and the Center for Disease Control.
(And yes, those scientists know that it’s hard to exactly know the mortality rate with the data we currently have. The current estimates may be a little bit high but, then again, they may also be too low. Read this article in The Lancet for a good discussion of how the mortality rate estimation process works.
The science pretty clearly shows that covid 19 has a mortality rate of about 1-2% whereas the flu is 0.1%. So it is at least 10 times deadlier than the flu & approaching the levels of the Spanish influenza (2%) which killed more than 40,000,000 in 1919-21 in a much smaller world
— StephanKesting (@StephanKesting) March 8, 2020
What About China?
Want to be sure that this is a serious virus? Take a look at what happened in China…
China is a country which worships and prioritises its economy and it just quarantined 80 million people, put travel restrictions on 780 million people and shut down its economy. Chinese officials welded apartment doors shut to lock people inside.
All this over a sniffle? I severely doubt that.
You might also might ask, “But isn’t the infection rate going down in China?”
Yes, it looks like the rates have mostly levelled off there, but China also took incredibly drastic measures in late January (after first lying about it of course) that are unlikely to be enacted anywhere else.
So while China has levelled off the infection in the rest of the world continues to grow exponentially.
Ultimately we’ve probably got something that is very contagious and also reasonably deadly that is going to overwhelm the healthcare system.
Is Kickboxing Safer than BJJ
It’s too soon to say, but striking martial arts are probably not much safer than grappling arts.
Until a few days ago the prevailing wisdom was that COVID 19 was a droplet-borne disease and could only be transmitted by touch or by someone directly sneezing on you.
But then a study by Princeton and other universities came out showing that the virus particles can survive and remain infectious in the air for up to 3 hours.
Viruses are tiny. Unbelieveably freaking tiny. Way smaller than the smallest pollen particle in the history of pollen particles.
So think about how long pollen particles can stay in the air, then imagine how far and pervasively a virus particle a million times smaller could float around.
Now think of people breathing heavily, shouting, and spattering sweat all over the place.
So until we have further data I would assume that your kickboxing, karate and krav maga are essentially as dangerous as your BJJ class. Don’t do them.
What I’m Going to Do
I’m personally washing and sanitizing my hands about 20 times a day.
I’m not shaking hands and am practising social distancing.
As of yesterday I’ve pulled my kids from school and am homeschooling them, and have cancelled extracurricular activities.
I had to take a flight for urgent family business last Monday. I was the only person wearing an N95 mask on the plane.
I was unsure if I was going to deploy this but at least 4 people on this plane are coughing, including the guy sitting immediately next to me… pic.twitter.com/ozNnDdkyXg
— StephanKesting (@StephanKesting) March 9, 2020
I bet that I’m not the only one wearing a mask on the flight home tomorrow (although to be effective it really does need to be an N95 rated mask – those paper filter masks probably don’t do much). And my clothing will also go directly into the wash as soon as I get home.
Unfortunately a more effective mode of transmission than rolling around on the ground with people who have also been rolling with other people cannot be imagined.
I wish it weren’t true.
But until this thing is under control I’m not training with anyone anymore.
Not grappling, not striking, not weapons.
I love training. And I have a vested financial interest in the health of the sport. And I have many friends who make their living teaching jiu-jitsu and martial arts.
Until we have more data about this whole thing I’m going to do strength and conditioning and work on my BJJ skills by watching videos. I’m just NOT willing to risk bringing an infection to my family and coworkers because of how much I enjoy training.
What to Do if You Own a BJJ School (7 Steps)
You’re about to go through some really tough times financially.
I really, truly wish it weren’t so. Maybe the science is wrong, but the smart money says otherwise.
Here are some ideas about what to do and how to (maybe) survive…
1: Immediately Suspend Classes for Two Weeks
If you run a school then I think it’s irresponsible to keep it open at this point.
Follow the lead of Marcelo Garcia, Keenan Cornelius and others who have just announced 2 week closures.
Be on the correct side of history and use Instagram, Facebook, email and text to let people know what’s happening. I guarantee they’re wondering what the hell is going on and waiting for you to exhibit some leadership.
Your school is going to close at some point (I should add that hopefully this is just temporarily).
The only question is whether you close it before or after you allowed one person to transmit it to 10 new people and thus perpetuate the exponential growth of this infection.
In 2 to 3 weeks we will have a MUCH better idea of what the real situation is. It could be bad or it could be good, but the point is that we’ll know much more and can then make much more informed decisions.
There are an unbelievable number of scientists, labs, and doctors working on this all over the world. In a few weeks the science, the medical treatment options, and the tests will be much better.
Who knows, maybe in a little while you’ll be able to swab and test students for COVID 19 before they come through your doors and step foot on your mats.
2: Straight Up Ask Your Students to Continue Paying Your During this Crisis
As this crisis has evolved I’ve been very heartened by the number of people who have gone to social media to declare that they WILL continue to pay their instructor during this crisis.
They realise that only by paying now will they have a school to come back to when this crisis is over.
The trouble is that many students might not realise how close their schools are operating to the edge financially.
They may not realise that their instructor is only 1 to 2 months of missed dues away from bankruptcy.
So straight up ask them for help. Use your words.
Tell them, “Look, I know this sucks, but I would REALLY appreciate your support right now. If you at all can, then please keep paying your dues so that we all still have a place to train when this thing quiets down.”
3: Possibly Arrange for Free Months Kicking In After the Crisis.
Maybe ask your ask your students to continue paying you for now, but offer them free classes in the future (at staggered intervals) to make up for it.
We just don’t have the data yet to know when this thing will end, but for the sake of argument let’s say that the crisis ends in June.
Then you make sure that student A gets a free month of training in July, student B gets a free month in August, and so on…
I’ve seen my friend Emily Kwok come up with a very similar proposal. Here is what she said on Facebook…
Gym owners and patrons, it’s wild times we are in and for those of you who aren’t sure whether you should open or close your gyms because of the harsh reality that you cannot shoulder the financial hardship, I might offer a suggestion. Some of your students may not be in a financial position to continue paying you through an extended closure. Others, may be totally fine with billing since their jobs are more secure or they have multiple streams of income.
All your members value your presence.
At my gym we are going to start with offering a 2 week credit at a later time in the year for the current closure we have instituted. That way we can stagger the losses and attempt to reopen after the brunt of this passes. If it has to be a month or more, I would try to offer the same. We recognize that not everyone can handle this and we will of course act as ethically as possible, but I think we can get through this as a community if we learn to lean on each other in creative ways.
And another friend, Rob Biernacki, has advocating rolling payment freezes on his Instagram, which you can see below.
View this post on Instagram
Just an idea to help small business owners find a balance between overall social responsibility during this pandemic, and the need to maintain revenue to stay afloat. If there is an outbreak in your town, closing for a few weeks is the best course of action, we plan to do so here, but many will hesitate due to the financial impact. While we all need to do our part to flatten the curve, offering this option to your students can help flatten the curve of the financial toll of this on the BJJ community. #islandtopteam #bjj #ctabjj #nanaimo #bjjlife #bjjlifestyle #sharejiujitsu #shareknowledge #sharesuccess #sharetheburden #flattenthecurve #weallgetbettertogether #coronavirus
4: Possibly Teach Remotely via IG Live, FB Live, Youtube Live, Zoom, etc.
You’ve heard the expression, “Out of sight is out of mind“?
Well if you’re NOT teaching classes it might be a really good idea to STILL get into your student’s faces.
One way to do that is to have regular Instagram (or Facebook, or Youtube) live sessions with them.
In a BJJ context you’re kind of limited what you can ask them to do training-wise, but maybe you could do some really detailed Q & A’s. Or lecture on some topic that you’ve prepared beforehand. Or just hang out.
Heck, if you’re teaching kickboxing or karate you might even be able to lead a full class that way.
Video streaming is easy to do if you have A) a smart phone, and B) the ability to google “how do I start Instagram live” (or the platform of your choice.
You figured out jiu-jitsu; you can figure out live streaming.
5: Possibly Promise a Free Seminar After the Crisis Abates
This idea came from a conversation I had with gym owner Jim Fitzpatrick on Instagram where he is @jjf522.
His suggestion was to incentivise people to pay their membership dues while the gym is closed by giving them something of value.
Promise them a cool seminar when things quiet down if they keep paying their dues.
You can even partner with a few other gym owners who live a decent distance away – far enough that they’re not direct competitors – and then do a series of seminars.
For example, you partner with three other gym owners (four partners total). When the crisis abates then each of you drives an hour or two to go teach a free seminar at each of the other guys’ schools.
That way the students at each school get FOUR free seminars for sticking with you.
Students who cancelled their memberships can still attend, but the price is $100 for each seminar. So in essence you’re giving your loyal students a gift of $400 each with no cost to you other than doing a bunch of driving and doing what you like to do anyway (teach).
6: Negotiate with Your Creditors Now
Look, a LOT of people are going to be in your exact shoes.
You are NOT going to be the only business with a huge downturn in sales over the next month or two. Which puts you in a pretty good bargaining position with your creditors, because if they play hardball with everyone then they’re going to lose everything.
So don’t pay any bills that you don’t have to (for now). Try to get them deferred.
A friend of mine just called a government agency he owes money to and started to explain the situation. “Coronavirus this. Students that…” The agent actually cut him off, gave him an autoyes, and then went on to take the next panicked call.
I’m not saying that you’ll be able to do this with all your creditors, but hopefully you can do this with at least some of them. Then you can play triage your money and put it where it has to go most.
7: Pay Attention to Government Programs
I don’t know what country you live in and I don’t know what’s going to be available to you when you read this.
This is a very rapidly evolving situation, but I would be shocked if there weren’t loans, debt forgiveness, or some sort of debt deferral programs coming soon.
I’m not sure about how it works, but Italy has suspended mortgage payments during it’s state of lockdown, so a precedent of sorts exists.
As a business owner it’s your job to keep an eye open for any programs that come along. And if you’re not teaching classes then you have more time to make the calls, emails, and google searches you need to find out about them
8: Other Ideas
If anyone has any other great ideas that they want to share with school owners about how to survive this crisis then I want to hear about it!
So for the health of the sport please post your idea/suggestion/lightbulb moment in the comments at the bottom of this article.
I’ll be monitoring those comments and if I think someone has a great idea I may add it to this list here.
Thank you so much.
A Plea to BJJ Students
Look, your instructor is about to go through some really fucking miserable times.
Right now he’s freaking out if the school and team that he’s spent years building is going to be undone by trillions of nanometer-scale virus particles.
Most schools I know simply can’t absorb the loss of a single month of student fees. They’re simply operating that close to the edge.
If you’d like a school to return to and train at after all this blows over then, if you can at all afford it, please don’t cancel your membership. Maybe work out a deal where you can pay him now but get a free month from him sometime in the future.
The Future of BJJ During and After COVID
First of all, in the short term it’s clear that all martial arts schools will face at least temporary devastation.
If they’re not closed already (damn them if they’re not) then they will be in very short order.I just hope that the students that can afford it continue to pay their dues so that there might be a school to come back to.
So the question becomes not IF they’re going to close, but for HOW LONG the schools are going to close.
The sad news here is that it’s still too soon to tell when they’ll be able to reopen.
But if I had to guess, the best case is at end of summer. And the worst case is sometime next year.
A vaccine is most likely going to take a long time. There’s a reason that every expert keeps on warning us that a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months to develop. (Can we start believing the experts now please?)
And even if there’s a miracle cure or the world’s fastest vaccine development, by the time it rolls out to the general population it’ll be months and months and months.
So that’s nothing to count on. Let’s talk about other scenarios….
Let’s say that testing for coronavirus becomes cheap and easy. Like a $5 test you can do in 5 minutes that’s 99.9% accurate.
If those roll out I could see clubs having testing requirements. Not belt testing requirements, but rather viral load testing requirements. You can’t step foot onto the mat unless you’ve been found negative for the virus.
Now let’s look at the exact opposite scenario: one where you can only train if you’ve HAD the virus.
Let’s assume that we find out that you can’t get reinfected by the virus (that’s a big ‘if’ by the way – the evidence isn’t at all clear yet either way).
If that’s true then maybe people who’ve survived infection will start training together. Maybe just in small groups initially, but then in larger groups and eventually you’ll have entire schools that are just for COVID-19 survivors.
In the fire department we’re talking about the idea of possibly having clean and dirty firehalls.
Clean halls for firefighters who have NOT had corona yet.
And dirty halls for people who’ve had it and gotten better, or people who have it, are sick, but could still fight a fire.
So in the same way I could see that MAYBE we end up with clean and dirty dojos.
Clubs and facilities where people are tested and found to be clear. And other dojos where people have had COVID and are now OK.
It’s CRITICAL to note that this could only happen if people can’t get reinfected once they’ve gotten over this illness. Otherwise we’ll keep on passing it along to the next guy, and the next guy, and then back to ourselves.
It’s very, very dystopian vision of testing and societal segragation. But it could happen.
Let’s all hope for a better solution. A cure, or a vaccine.
But for that to work we need to slow down the spread of the virus.
Let’s Panic in a Calm and Responsible Manner
This is pandemic, and maybe, hopefully, it will be brought under control. But not without our participation and not without changing our behavior.
As training partners, as citizens, and as human beings there are things we can do to help out.
Martial arts is about discipline, and in this case it’s about the discipline NOT to train.
Don’t let your love of working out result in a single additional transmission or quite literally the death of an elderly or immunocompromised person.
It’s easy to rationalise things and go do what you want to do anyway. But one of my favorite quotes comes from Richard Feynman who said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Let’s not fool ourselves on this one.