When Can We Train Again? The Path Back to the Mats
I was wiping the sweat out of my boxing gloves after another Zoom kickboxing class, thinking about how adaptable BJJ people are. For most martial artists, this is the new normal: Grappler’s have transitioned to striking, solo drills, strength and conditioning work. We tend to be resilient and we deal with the situation at hand as it presents itself. That’s why my wife’s question hit me so hard.
What happens next?, she asked.
It’s a question I had an easier time answering in late February and early March. I’m a medical journalist who writes mostly for a physician audience. I fell in love with writing about medicine -- especially contagious disease, of all topics -- after reading Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone in college. I didn’t know that 10 years later, I’d be living in one.
I mention this to underscore that for a lay person, I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking to experts about infectious disease. What I don’t know about is how a society transitions out of a pandemic. In mid-March, I felt like I could follow the path through the pandemic for miles into the distance. And then it hit, and I found myself wandering through dark woods without a flashlight.
What I do know is that right now, ready or not, America is reopening for business, and soon, if it hasn’t happened already, BJJ academies will too. I had initially written a post for this blog about how they definitely should not open as if it's business as usual, that we should not resume live training yet. I still believe that, but my reasoning has changed.
To be frank, we only have an estimate of just how deadly COVID-19 is, and unfortunately, due to inadequate antibody testing, we likely won’t have a firm conclusion for another year. That means it will be about a year before we know if we’re overreacting, underreacting, or getting it right.
In my mind, that leaves only one sensible option: caution. And that’s why, at the risk of sounding like a total homer, I applaud the physician-authored Alliance plan for a phased approach to returning to training. Taking into consideration this plan, as well as everything else I’ve learned so far reporting on COVID-19, here’s what I think BJJ will look like in the months ahead.
Antibody testing, in my opinion, should be an integral component to reopening American and American BJJ academies. However, it is not a free pass to train with whomever you want, whenever you want to. Here’s a thought experiment:
Meet Ted. Ted has antibodies and is immune to COVID-19. He trains with Skylar, who is infected but not yet symptomatic. Ted is fine, but now he’s covered in Skylar’s viral particles. His next training partner, Sherman, isn’t immune. He gets infected. Sherman then trains with and infects five other students at open mat.
You might be thinking, OK, so just test everybody for COVID-19 prior to allowing them on the mats. Or barring that, take their temperatures. Problem solved. And you would be right, however, this doesn’t take into account the fact that many people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have shown no symptoms. It also doesn’t take into account the fact that as of right now, we do not have a widely available, rapid COVID-19 test. One exists, but it’s not something BJJ academies can get their hands on and use. So, theoretically, an asymptomatic spreader could go undetected and could infect an entire school in one training session.
The way forward
This doesn’t mean we can’t have our martial art. It just won’t look like what we know and love for a while. As academies get the green light to reopen, those playing it safe will probably have a few commonalities.
For one, class sizes will be kept small. And in the first few weeks of reopening, class will likely resemble what's being done in Zoom training sessions across the country right now -- lots of solo drills. Students will likely have to go through temperature checks and rigorous hand hygiene just to step foot on the mats.
Cleaning and hygiene are going to be common refrains in the months ahead. On a recent Groundswell Grappling Concepts call with BJJ academy and business owners, a dentist told us about what they’re being advised to do.
After a patient encounter, they’ve been instructed to close the operatory room door and leave it shut for two hours. This will ensure that any airborne viral particles settle prior to cleaning. Academy owners may need to do the same, operating on a limited schedule to account for cleaning demands.
Perhaps with enough time, more interactive training or live training could resume with designated training partners. However, this approach is only 100% safe if neither partner (or anybody with whom they cohabitate) ever leaves the house except to train. That’s a highly unlikely scenario.
A return to normal
In order for indiscriminate live training to resume, I believe one or some combination of these things will have to happen:
An effective vaccine would have to become widely available. The Trump administration has said it wants 300 million doses available by January. For context, the fastest time to market for any vaccine was 4 years for the mumps shot. If we do hit the so-called “Operation Warp Speed” timeline, it will be because we accelerated the usually slow, deliberate trial process, possibly cutting ethical and efficacy corners in the process.
Cheap, reliable, and readily available treatments would also help get us training again. Early FDA trials for remdesivir look encouraging, but right now all available options are mostly for symptom management. Hydroxychloroquine proved to be dangerous, and is a good example, in my opinion, of what happens when speculation takes precedence over science.
Saving the best for last, I believe that second only to a vaccine, widespread viral and antibody testing are our best shot at resuming live training. I wrote about that topic here, if you’re interested. If we had an instant test that was easy to administer and plentiful, then we could test everybody before allowing them onto the mats. This is, however, a lot easier said than done.
All you have to do is look at the faulty antibody tests that have proliferated the market.
Testing is also the most frustrating aspect of the COVID-19 response. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the defining limiting factor, in my opinion, has been insufficient testing. Not enough testing means not enough data. Insufficient data makes for under-informed policy. And under-informed policy means we could be under- or overreacting. I wrote a bit about that here.
At any rate, all presently available evidence leads me to conclude that a return to normal life as a grappler is going to require some combination of better testing, better treatment, and a vaccine. Pushing ahead without them could prove to be a major blunder. Until then, we unfortunately need to be patient and amend our approach to training. Be the resilient, gritty grapplers that we are.
Joe Hannan is a consultant, writer, and purple belt at Princeton Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You can see more of what he’s up to here or follow him here.