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COVID-19 and Jiu-Jitsu

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by Paul Kindzia in Jiu-Jitsu Business, Training

This is probably the very best article/summary of where we are with the Coronavirus and how it ties into our practice of jiu-jitsu and some thoughts and ideas of where you fit in on your beliefs.

It was written by my friend Stephan Kesting over at Grapplearts (

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this so let’s talk about COVID 19 (coronavirus) and BJJ…

My approach to this comes from three perspectives…

  1. I’ve trained in the martial arts for 40 years and got my BJJ black belt 14 years ago…
  2. I have both a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in biology and have been following the science around this virus fairly carefully…
  3. 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.

 Note: This article was published in first draft form on Thursday March 12th. Last updated March 13th, 9:17 am PST 

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…

Xeinok |

@chewjitsu @StephanKesting Okay, maybe stupid/overdone question but if we are someone in fairly regular contact with elderly/immunodeficient people, should we be considering cancelling plans for large BJJ events, etc. considering all the coronavirus drama? Pans in 2 weeks…


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.

See StephanKesting’s other Tweets

Let me explain…

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 Effects of Flattening the COVID 19 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 respirator 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

See StephanKesting’s other Tweets

You 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. And I guarantee you that BJJ clubs weren’t allowed to be operating after January 24th 2020 in Wuhan.

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 M95 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…

View image on Twitter
See StephanKesting’s other Tweets

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 M95 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.

BJJ School Owners

And 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.

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.

Maybe 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. So student A will get a free month of training in July, student B will get a free month in August, and so on…

And if you can’t make rent or pay your bills then the only good news is that you won’t be the only person negotiating with your landlord and your creditors for a temporary suspension of payments. Most landlords will need to do something to help you or risk losing most of their tenants.

Everyone will be in the same boat and eventually there might be some sort of government intervention on this front (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).

I really, truly wish it weren’t so. And maybe the science is wrong, but the smart money says otherwise.

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.

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.


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