by Floyd Burk
The primary function of MASuccess is to help you overcome any obstacle that stands between your martial arts business and financial success. In 2020, the main obstacle for most schools was the pandemic. Sadly, it remains so in 2021.
This has spurred endless discussion, most of it based on this all-to-common premise: “My school has been closed for a long time and I still have to pay rent. My state says I can’t teach inside, so I’m planning to start holding class outside soon. Do you have any suggestions?”
In this article, I’ll shed some light on this subject and related ones that focus on teaching outside your regular establishment.
Let’s start by assuming that you live in a locale where state and local officials have issued orders keeping you from conducting class in your school or orders that restrict the number of people allowed inside. I’m a school owner in San Diego County, so I know of what I speak. I also know that even if you’ve been doing Zoom and/or Facebook Live classes like I have, it’s important to do whatever it takes to teach in person, to make things seem as normal as possible for students. How do you make things seem normal in a pandemic? I’ll tell you what we did.
I decided to nickname the alley in back of our school the “outdoor dojo.” I ordered a big banner that says OUTDOOR KARATE, rationalizing that it would convey to prospective students the existence of this new training space. To reach those people, I often affix the sign to the side of my SUV and park it on the street. Sometimes I hang the sign in front of our school.
The reason I’m passing along this tactic first is I know it works. We’ve had sign-ups who told the staff that they saw our banner and it was the reason they came in. We’ve also had longtime students who feared training inside say they noticed the banner while driving by and were inspired to return to outdoor lessons.
As successful as the banner has been, I also figured it was essential to send emails and do Facebook posts that let everyone know what’s going on at our school. Yes, we’re still teaching our art — it’s just in the alley that’s out the back door of our studio. The makeshift location may not be optimal, especially when undesirables pass by, but it beats the alternative, which is doing nothing while we try to pay the bills.
The New Normal
Now I’ll elaborate on the issue of trying to keep things normal during a decidedly abnormal time. It’s all about perception. Teaching requires a certain amount of equipment, and teaching outside means carrying said equipment to your outdoor dojo and setting it up there — every day. It’s the new cost of doing business.
Haul out a Kid Kick bag, a regular BOB, a BOB XL and a couple of mats. Don’t forget chairs for the staff members and parents who may be there to observe. All the gear will help make things seem normal to everyone, and that’s especially important for the youngsters.
The presence of the gear that defines your business also will help if you have to amend your lease to officially get permission to teach outside. Why would this be required? Because your lease likely covers only your indoor space. Doing business in an alley or the parking lot necessitates additional documentation.
In my case, the property owner requested a photo of our outdoor setup — hence my suggestion to tote your gear to your training space — and then sent me an amended contract to sign. Once you do likewise, you’ll need to call your insurance agent and request coverage for your new outside dojo. When I did this, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there were no additional fees.
Once you’re done with your new setup, it’s time to think about operations and logistics. Devise a plan for safely getting students to and from your outside training area. I have students come into the dojo via the front entrance and stow any belongings they won’t need for training, then march outside and stand next to one of the “kick space” cones that the staff has positioned. We place them 78 inches apart, which is the 6-foot social-distance recommendation plus a little extra.
The person who’s teaching the class ensures that students take their water bottles with them as they head out. He or she also makes sure that before any minors are sent outside, a staff member is already there to supervise.
You may find that some parents fear that the coronavirus is lurking inside your school and therefore prefer that their kids not walk through. If that’s the case, don’t oppose them. Simply ask them to escort their children from their vehicle directly to the outside dojo. You could try to explain how much effort is being put into sanitizing the surfaces that students come into contact with. That might help with some parents, but for others, it won’t be enough, so you might as well create a backup plan ahead of time so their concerns can be accommodated.
In our school, we decided to allow students to keep their footwear on while walking through our school because they — and often their parents — want to minimize the contact they have with shared surfaces. When they’re outside, we require them to wear athletic shoes. I explain that we all wear shoes on the street, so wearing shoes while practicing self-defense only makes sense.
We encourage students to wear the same pair of shoes while walking from their car to the dojo, while moving through the dojo to the outside training area, while working out and then while walking back inside before returning to their vehicle. Yes, that likely goes against your dojo rules, but it’s a sacrifice you might have to make. Because shoes tend to get grimy, I purchased a few dozen doormats and lined them up to form a walkway through the dojo.
While students are entering and exiting, they’re required to wear masks. It’s up to the students — or their parents, if they’re minors — if they want to remove their masks during the actual training. Depending on the mood in your particular part of the country, you might want to offer a class in which everyone is required to mask up for the duration of the training. If you chose this option, keep an eye on everyone, especially any students who have asthma. Some time ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health warning about wearing a mask while engaging in exercise and fitness training.
The Park Place
An option for school owners who don’t have access to a nearby alley or parking lot is holding class in a local park. We’ve done this and can say that it’s a viable solution. If you decide to try it, be sure to ask your insurance agent to add the location to your liability policy so you’re covered while teaching there.
I suggest choosing the most family-oriented park in your area. As with the back-alley dojo described above, you’ll want to bring some shields and lightweight bags for students to use. I advise you to leave most of your weapons — training and real — in your school. Although staffs and kali sticks likely won’t cause problems, wielding nunchaku, swords, training knives and plastic guns is almost guaranteed to attract the wrong kind of attention.
Doing martial arts in a park might attract hecklers and gawkers, as it can when you’re training near your dojo. However, this should be manageable for any experienced teacher — just use your verbal judo to deflect the unwanted attention and, if necessary, defuse it.
Question 1: Can I still teach ground fighting outside?
Absolutely. When you have the right people, you can do whatever kind of contact training you want. By “right people,” I mean family members and friends who train together. Such groups can form a pod or bubble for each student, which means they can be suitable partners for grappling (assuming your state’s laws permit this).
Students who may be loners in class likely have a relative they can bring to class to serve as a grappling partner. When that’s the best alternative, we allow the “civilian” to serve as the uke once the person has signed a waiver, and we view the partner as a potential student. In fact, my school has had several people enroll after their interest was sparked by a stint as a loved one’s training partner — people who probably would not have signed up otherwise.
(Sidenote: Last night, I read an article in the January/February 2021 issue of MASuccess that discusses just such a plan: recruiting from within and pitching to parents who visit your establishment.)
If a student simply is unable to bring a training partner, he or she still can benefit from observing classmates doing grappling moves. Until COVID is a thing of the past, these students can mimic the movements solo on a socially distanced mat.
Final note on grappling outside: If you don’t have enough portable mats to enable all your students to roll at the same time, do station training. Have some students work on the mats while others hit the bags or kick the shields — or do calisthenics.
Question 2: What kinds of exercises can be done outside without buying a lot of extra gear?
When it comes to outdoor exercises, I advise looking to CrossFit for inspiration. One piece of equipment CrossFitters like is the truck or tractor tire. Acquire one that’s worn out and have students flip it or drag it across the pavement.
Alternatively, you can buy a battle rope. Young students can use it the way it’s intended — or form teams and play tug of war.
Question 3: I live in a sunny part of the country. Should I make my students wear a hat for sun protection while they train?
I recommend going easy on uniform requirements. Students should be allowed to wear a hat — we instructors must do everything we can to help protect them from the negative effects of sun exposure — but that’s different from requiring a hat.
My school rules allow students to wear any hat during training. A more business-minded option might be to encourage them to buy a hat with your school logo printed on it.
On the subject of unforms, we also allow school T-shirts for outdoor training in the summer and require a gi only from fall to early spring. Students seem to like having the option — especially kids, who always enjoy doing things they normally don’t get a chance to do. We also allow them to wear a school sweatshirt.
Question 4: Should I cancel an outdoor class if there’s rain or snow, or is “toughing it out” more in line with traditional martial arts training?
As an instructor, you want to do what you can to keep everyone’s immune system strong during the pandemic. Therefore, training in the rain is not recommended. The same goes for training in snow.
If you own a few pop-ups, you can use them for socially distanced partner training during inclement weather. I emphasize “can” because my school has three pop-ups and we’ve tried this, and it wasn’t that great.
Re. more serious weather: I suggest you always be on the lookout for thunderstorms, high-wind warnings and so on — and be ready to move everybody indoors for their safety. When you move inside, have a Plan B for training. Options include studying the school handbook, listening to a lecture, writing in their training notebooks and even having a Q&A session.
As I write this, many parts of the country still have snow, so I’ll offer this suggestion. It probably won’t fit all students in a given class, but those who are hardcore might be interested. Make training outside in bad weather an actual event. We call it kangeiko, which is Japanese for “cold weather training.” It entails going someplace that has snow on the ground and engaging in training. Because it’s planned, everyone can be prepared for the low temperature — you don’t want anyone getting frostbitten toes or fingers.
Question 5: Does outdoor training work for any martial art?
Yes, but you probably will have to tailor the training area to your needs. If you run a jiu-jitsu school, you’ll need lots of mats — and not much more. If your dojo teaches karate as a comprehensive form of self-defense, you’ll need mats and a lot more. That could include training weapons, shields, pads and bags.
The more gear and stations you have, the better. One parent built a balance beam for our school so students can work on balance, focus and coordination. It’s not high off the ground, but it still presents a challenge and offers a tangible benefit. Over time, you’ll see that young students tend to enjoy running around and playing games that involve martial arts moves and improve their skills. You might even find that some of them would rather train outside than train inside.
Question 6: Are there any safety protocols that need to be created?
In the beginning, much of your outdoor training likely will involve children and teens. That means you’ll need to take precautions that pertain to things like traffic control. I place sandwich-board signs at each end of our outside dojo so cars don’t drive into our area. Nevertheless, occasionally one will try. When that happens, we have a protocol in place: Someone yells “car,” and all the kids head for the building. Meanwhile, an adult assistant gently scolds the driver.
Question 7: What if a passerby sees “violent” training, perhaps with weapons, and thinks it’s a real attack — and then calls 911?
In theory, this sounds like a possibility, but in reality, it won’t happen unless you have a couple of adult students wearing street clothes and going at it full-contact. What’s more likely is that someone will call local law enforcement’s non-emergency line to rat on you for running your outdoor dojo. In that case, a local deputy sheriff might stop by. Your job is to be prepared to explain that you’re complying with all COVID regulations.
Essential: You, as the instructor, must be there to deal with such issues should they arise. Don’t leave it to an inexperienced helper to do the explaining or you risk getting shut down temporarily.
Question 8: What do I do about gawkers? What if a gawker becomes a heckler — or a challenger?
You will attract gawkers and the occasional heckler. That’s nothing new in our world. I like to invite them to sign up and join class. I always keep a few school brochures on hand so I can pass them out, thereby redirecting their focus in a positive direction. Sometimes it works.
If an onlooker becomes challenger, I tell the person that he has to be a registered student to join in. If he presses, I say, “You’re making the students feel uncomfortable. I want you to leave now.”
If the troublemaker approaches us, I recommend sternly saying, “Back off!” If that doesn’t stop the transgressor, you might have to resort to your defensive tactics. By now, someone on your side should be calling the police. It’s good to know the relevant penal code in your state before anything like this happens. I’ve used laws that pertain to trespassing and preventing a person from conducting lawful business in an establishment to justify placing someone under citizen’s arrest. Yes, it’s a headache, but you never know what could happen, so it’s best to be prepared.
True story: In the beginning, it bothered my students when hecklers would stand outside our dojo’s windows and doors shouting at us, and it bothered me even more. When I would reply verbally, often it helped but sometimes it made matters worse.
One day, my wife and I attended a Ringo Starr concert in San Diego. After a few numbers, Ringo stepped away from the drums and walked to the front of the stage to sing With a Little Help From My Friends. The crowd contained a few hecklers who turned on Ringo. He paused, then said kindly, “I’m an entertainer, and I’m here to entertain. No matter what you say, all I hear is ‘I love you, Ringo!’” And that was it. The heckling stopped.
Since then, I’ve used that same tactic with hecklers who approached our dojo — they like to bang on the aluminum doors on the side of the building and shout. I always tell my students, “They’re just saying, ‘I love Trad Am Karate.’”
When your students see that the ruckus doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother them. The offender will get bored and leave. This works as well when you’re teaching outdoors as when you’re teaching indoors.
Floyd Burk is a San Diego–based 10th-degree black belt with 50 years of experience in the arts. To contact him, visit Independent Karate Schools of America at iksa.com.
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