Martial arts studios learn with no contact in green phase

MONACA, Pa. (AP) — Contact sports with no contact sounds impossible, but it’s become the new normal for martial arts studios throughout the pandemic.

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Martial arts studios were given approval to operate at 50% capacity in the green phase like many businesses across the region. In a unique situation, though, studios have been tasked with altering their practices to follow safety guidelines.

After getting their temperatures checked and their hands sanitized at the doors, students at H&H Family Martial Arts Academy in Monaca, Beaver County, run to a designated dot spaced six feet away from the next. There will be no interaction with friends as they would on a normal day. Instead, students are expected to keep to themselves — even the five-year-olds.

Before class begins, Paul Heinselman, master instructor of H&H, reminds students to check their dots. They quickly shuffle their feet to make sure they are centered on their spot.

“They know the drill by now, that’s how we keep them safe,” Heinselman said. “The little guys, it’s amazing how well they take discipline. They’re like a sponge.”

These procedures are common for most studios now after beginning in-person classes again on June 8. Students are required to register a spot for class to ensure session sizes remain low. Masks are optional in most studios due to the intensive nature of martial arts. Most practices leave students red in the face and panting.

The curriculum has been adjusted to focus on form and tactics that don’t involve partner work, and limited contact with the studio equipment as well. For now, students simply follow along with an instructor.

Isaac Thompson, 14, of Center, Beaver County, said the curriculum change has been a “hindrance” on his progression towards his black belt. He said he was just beginning weapon work when the shutdown happened.

Many instructors say the nature of the sport has allowed them to readjust to the new routine easily, though.

“With martial arts, it’s always been about being in an uncomfortable position and adapting,” said Elizabeth Lindsay, chief instructor of CS Kim Karate at North Huntingdon. “It’s always been about benefit versus risk.”

While most students have taken well to the changes, Lindsay said she still has concerns for younger students used to their parents by their side every day in quarantine. Lindsay said she is considering creating additional classes for children under 10 where parents can take up class seats after the studio closed their lobby to parents.

Robert Makowski, co-owner of Makowski’s Martial Arts in Saxonburg, Butler County, said many parents wait in their cars during practice after his studio’s viewing area was closed. Through a livestream, parents can use their phones to keep an eye on their kids while they are in class.

Some studios have made drastic changes to their operations to protect their students.

Mark Nastascusa, owner and head instructor of Washington Kung Fu in Washington, Pa., has eliminated children’s programs at the studio to avoid infections among young students. With only adults training, masks are required for low intensity work.

New members are reserving spots in many studios too, though instructors describe the summer as “unpredictable” due to vacations and other outdoor sports. With most summer activities canceled, people are being drawn to martial arts classes where they can continue their workouts and interact with others.

“The things that matter are really contrasted (in the pandemic), and a lot of people have really missed the community. They miss that personal, social aspect,” said Bill White, chief instructor of Rothrock’s Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Pittsburgh.

With concerns about the virus still lingering in the green phase, some students prefer to follow along via livestream hosted during normal class hours or recorded videos from quarantine. Until early June, Zoom acted as an alternative facility to continue students’ education and workouts at home.

“It kind of felt like switching from a lead instructor in a workout to hosting a TV show,” said Karyn Graff, co-owner of Oakmont Martial Arts in Oakmont.

Graff said there was “no down time” as a virtual instructor, because students were constantly focused on the teacher instead of their friends. Student engagement was the ultimate goal, so Graff said she studied kids YouTube channels to see what worked.

In addition to lessons, Graff said Oakmont hosted a virtual tournament with studios in Ohio after others were canceled. Testing for belt ranking also took place online, which offered an unexpected positive for family members across the country.

“For some of them, that was actually the very first time they could watch their (relative) in martial arts,” Graff said.

Moke’s Martials Arts in Charleroi, Washington County, gave students the chance to take classes outdoors on a baseball field before the county turned green. Chuck Balieu, owner of Moke’s, said he was inspired by yoga classes that hold sessions outdoors year-round. To keep students safe, everyone kept a 10-foot distance.

“In fact, a lot of students want to (go outside) all of the time,” Balieu said. While he’s open to the idea on a nice day, Balieu said he reminds the children of indoor benefits. “Just remember, the dojo has air conditioning, the outside does not.”

Outdoor space allowed Makowski’s studio room to test safety precautions, which they carried over to their classes in the studio.

Being together in person is motivating students and instructors alike even if the experience is different. Dakota Trainer, 13, of Industry, Beaver County, said having a teacher in front of him and his friends only six feet away brings him into the studio after months apart.

“The energy of everyone has stayed pretty much the same even though we’re distanced (in the studio),” Mackenna Guadagnoli, 16, of Center, said. “Being by yourself is rough.”

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com