Pandemic perspectives

Every one of us has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, especially with regards to training BJJ. Curious as to how others were dealing, I reached out to several women in the BJJ community to find out how they’ve been facing this unprecedented time. The short answer: Head on. The long answer: It’s complicated, it varies, and it’s likely to change.  

An accompaniment to the article Lessons in Lockdown for Girls in Gis, the below is a Covid-19 style asynchronous, social-distanced round-table crafted from the reflections of three women navigating this uncertain moment in our world.  

Q: To start things off, could you share how often you were training before lockdown?

Kim: I’d say I was a steady hobbyist. I’ve been training about 2 to 3 times a week regularly over the past 3 years.

Lauren: Before the pandemic I trained at least four times a week, that took some adjusting because prior to that, I was training more but I was just too exhausted. I think by the time the pandemic hit I had found a good balance between training and resting.

Anonymous: I trained 4 to 6 days a week. I had stumbled into BJJ randomly, with no real pre-conceived notion of what it was but became hooked!

Q: How would you describe your relationship with BJJ before the pandemic hit?

K: I consider BJJ as something I do for fun/leisure, as well as something that provides structure to my week (it’s also the only way I work out). I’m not deep into the competitive side of the sport. I’ve never competed, and I’m also not the type to study techniques on YouTube or watch the sport outside of my training. But BJJ has certainly been a constant in my life for the past few years.

L: Overall, I was training in BJJ because I actually liked how slow the process was. I love the idea of mastering something over a long period of time. It’s also a practice that has clear steps and ways to measure progress, so that’s really satisfying to me because it has its own logic, as opposed to running for running’s sake, or something like that. Also it’s social by design! You can’t BJJ alone, which I find really beautiful? And also that’s what makes this period especially difficult.

A: BJJ was not only my fitness obsession – but it was a social community as well. More importantly, it made me proud of myself and my body, and made me confident and less fearful. I love training BJJ, the learning curves, the ups and downs – the ability to test myself and strengthen myself. I was a member of a small gym that had a local community feel and, most importantly, stand-out instructors who made training a joy.

Q: What are some things you’ve learned about yourself and BJJ or reactions you had in the early days of lockdown?

K: I’ve been struck by just how much BJJ is truly a community-based sport that requires close quarters, “skinship,” and a hive mind that contributes to everyone’s development. It’s not something a single person, or even two, can try to accomplish in a bubble. It makes me all the more anxious about what our BJJ practice will look like post-COVID, even after things “open up.”

L: Sometimes I find myself reviewing things over in my head, especially things I learned in the very last class I was able to go to before everything shut down. I guess it’s a funny way of reminding myself that I still have that iterative knowledge buried somewhere!

A: The first couple weeks were a nightmare – I lost all self-discipline without the social pressure and the “get out of the house” aspect of BJJ. I ate like crap, I had a glass of wine once a day instead of my usual 2 glasses a week. I did a couple Youtube abs videos, I forced myself through a jog or two. I bought access to online classes – Keenan Online, Yoga for BJJ, the free BJJ Fanatics content – but it was so hard to utilize these tools. They reminded me how much I missed Jiu Jitsu and, more drearily, how ill-equipped small apartments are for all these “solo drills.”

Q: Could you describe what your training regimen has been since going into lockdown?

L: I’ve done very little BJJ-related training, and I’m not a person who learns by watching, so I haven’t been able to make the transition that others have of watching videos and replicating techniques, or watching matches. I’ve always known that I’m more of an experiential learner – I need someone there to physically move my arm to the right place in order for something to stick – so this has been hard.

K: Since gyms are closed, there has been zero training for me in its pure form. I do have mats at home, and to keep myself active during lockdown I follow some BJJ-inspired yoga and aerobic workouts, as well as some drills (Yoga for BJJ, Cobrinha’s channel, etc.). But all these are absolutely (well, 90%) not the same as attending a class, learning from your coaches, drilling with fellow practitioners, or rolling.

If your goal during the lockdown is to stay active and try to keep some element of BJJ alive, you’ll be fine (maintenance); but if your goal is to continue progressing on your BJJ journey like you were before the lockdown (growth), I think you are out of luck. There are only so many BJJ-inspired workouts you can do before you realize it’s just not the same. In fact, even though my live-in partner does BJJ as well, and we’ve rolled on our mats a couple of times, it’s surprising how it still doesn’t feel anywhere close to the routine I previously had.

A: I heard through the grapevine that there was somewhere I could train, by invite – very small, “off-grid” if you will. I went through a lot of deliberation. Ultimately the role and importance BJJ plays in my physical and mental health along with my particular situation meant I decided to train. I am back to training a few times a week. Nonetheless, I miss my training partners and before-lockdown BJJ life MISERABLY – but for me this has been a lifeline for my physical and mental health.

Q: How did you go about choosing your current training regimen? What factors did you take into consideration?

A: Obviously, because of the health crisis I did not undertake the decision to train lightly. The training is with a small, consistent group of people. I minimize interaction with the “outside world” and don’t see family or friends I know who are higher risk or interact with higher risk populations. I have shared my activities with my family so they know what is going on and have found support.

For me personally, I know that lots of low-risk people who are younger/healthier can get it, but I accept that there are all sorts of unanticipated health situations and unforeseen accidents that are risks in everyday life – like I could be hit by a car while taking a walk or get in an accident while driving. BJJ has helped me to live a life with less fear and I am not open to welcoming fear back into my life.

The largest concern I have is that the medical system is overloaded right now and that I am doing a physically risky activity. What if I get injured and need to see a doctor? That’s not fair of me to march into an ER during a pandemic. I’m cognizant of this and do work to minimize the types of rolling situations that could be injurious.

L: Currently I’ve been doing a pilates routine every morning. Pilates is closer to what my exercise regimen looked like pre-BJJ, so I’ve been enjoying giving it time and really working on it because before, it was always a supplement to some other workout I was doing, as opposed to the main thing. I want to use this time to let my body develop other kinds of strength, because the strength I was building when I was training was really intense. Crazy things would happen like I would break jars trying to open them because I actually wasn’t used to that kind of intensity before.

So my goal with the pilates stuff is to do things that actually support/restore my body – working on building core and back strength etc. With BJJ, I found that I would be really strong in strange places because it would reflect whatever we were learning/how I was rolling, but there wasn’t a rhyme or reason to it. Even though it’s exercise, BJJ is just so rough on things like your joints and ligaments – it’s not a restorative exercise routine by any stretch. With pilates, the aim is for your whole body to support itself. It’s still really hard! But it’s kinder.

K: Since I’ve been resigned to the idea that I can only grow so much during this quarantine, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s pointless (for me) to cram techniques into my head, especially if I’m not able to practice them in a live rolling session or commit them to muscle memory. So I’ve just not focused on any technique videos at all.

I mostly do cardio and yoga (coming from someone who had never done yoga before!) as a way to keep my body in shape and ready for whenever I can train again. I’m personally not hot on drills but I think they can be very helpful to building muscle memory.

Q: Could you share what your current health goals are during this time, especially with relation to BJJ?

K: BJJ was the only way I worked out, so not being able to keep up that same amount of heightened physical activity every week is concerning. My goals are just keeping in shape (to counter the spike of baking in my household–also something that never happened pre-COVID), and trying my best not to lose any of the muscle I gained over the past few years. My body type is on the skinny/bony/weak side, so I really appreciated the muscle definition that BJJ helped me build.

L: Right now my goals are to increase my core and hip strength – those were the two things that would bother me the most in training. Even though I was improving when I rolled, I could tell my body wasn’t in sync with itself and those parts of my body weren’t working as well together as they should.

My other goal is to improve my flexibility, which pilates helps with to an extent. I always had a hard time with positions like knee on belly because it’s hard for me to feel stable while being so low, so integrating some BJJ stability moves into my pilates routine is a larger project, which I’m hoping will help when we’re all back to training!

A: My goals are to learn as much as I can from the room I’m in now. I’m also thinking about how I want my training to be when we all come out of lockdown – how can some of the things I’ve been working on continue to evolve once I’m back to regular training.
More importantly, I am valuing rest time much more than I used to. Because of the crazy situation we’re all in, I know I need to take more time to let my brain and body settle between training sessions. I am notoriously bad at doing this and in the past, I trained through all sorts of injuries, with rest days filled with BJJ fomo. This whole moment in time has taught me to rest a little more, to be a little easier on myself and my body.

Q: Any last advice or thoughts you could share for other ladies for staying strong during lockdown and facing new challenges as we move out of lockdown?

A: These are the lessons I’ve learned for myself during this time: Be kinder to yourself and to others. Don’t assume you know what’s best for anyone else – but also don’t assume you know what’s best for yourself out of the gate either. Slow down and listen to yourself. Get in touch with how you feel after you eat certain foods, do different workouts, or take a rest day – let that drive your behavior, not what you think you should be doing because someone else is doing it that way.

Trust yourself, now more than ever – there are so many conflicting opinions and changing news articles and different approaches to lockdown life. Being more mindful of the quality and quantity of news and social media content you consume can help with this. So slow down and trust yourself to make the best decisions for yourself!

L: I think one of those most helpful things to remember is that unlike a typical exercise regimen, BJJ is a deep and extensive practice. It’s ongoing, and progress isn’t linear. That would be the case even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. This is both good and less good. Good because it’s a very forgiving martial art in terms of taking time off. It’s less good because of the things I mentioned previously – the goal is to do the moves correctly, and sometimes that comes at the expense of the overall function of your body (it shouldn’t, but it happens). BJJ causes a lot of stress on your knees, or your back, or your joints, etc.

It’s also easy with BJJ to fall out of practice with more holistic forms of exercise. So a good reminder in this forced time-out is to return to those other practices and develop different strengths. Hopefully when this is all over, those practices can be something that integrates well with our BJJ training and from that, we can develop a more forgiving practice overall.

K: My biggest uncertainty is what I’ll do when gyms do open up. Should I still go? I want to, but is that responsible? I don’t have an answer yet; I’ll have to see how things are on a day-by-day basis. I think one of the biggest comforts, even if it is the bare minimum, is that we’re all in this together. It sucks that I’m not progressing, but since BJJ relies so much on mutual training and growth, that means my teammates are in the same boat. And the least we can do is acknowledge our losses, mourn appropriately, and keep encouraging ourselves to look forward to the day we can all safely train again. Plus, the BJJ community is not alone in this situation!

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