Ottawa MMA gyms facing unique fight in reopening amid COVID-19

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Facebook photo from the page of the Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts.

By David Agbaire

The innate essence of MMA has meant that few businesses have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak and the social distancing restrictions that followed more than martial arts gyms.

As Ontario enters phase two of its reopening plan, some gyms are preparing to open their doors to members for the first time in months. Members are the lifeblood of these businesses, which depend on the fees they pay for survival. For martial arts gyms, the loosening of social distancing restrictions couldn’t come quickly enough. But reopening isn’t as simple as some would think.

“Unfortunately, a large part of our members lost their job, they lost their source of income. Many members have had to stop their membership immediately,” said Matt Haché, owner of the Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts, a training centre based in Westboro.

WATCH: MMA Gyms in Quarantine Episode I – Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts

During the pandemic, martial arts gyms have been forced to engage their members in creative ways to continue promoting the values tied to many of the key foundations of the sport, such as resilience, humility and respect. Experiments of some gyms include waiving membership fees, organizing outdoor workouts with smaller-than-usual groups, and shifting programming to online – all means of survival that have also tended to be more difficult for businesses with a smaller amount of staff.

“It’s choppy (on Zoom). Sometimes we’ll have some members on the call and it freezes… there’s also delay in the speech,” said Nabil Khatib, owner of Team Bushido MMA Fitness Centre.

Without in-person practice it can be challenging for martial arts instructors to form the personal connection with their students that’s so integral to their learning. Trainers who spoke to the Ottawa Sportspage said it can be tough keeping members motivated when training virtually as well. Martial arts is also a social activity for many people, with in-person sessions serving as motivation for people to keep up with the sport.

“The issue is that it starts off as a big group and then a lot of times people start flaking and falling away… I’ve done this before and I know how it kind of slowly declines,” said Sam Lok, the lead teacher of the Neak Ta kickboxing school. It’s located in the city’s Alta Vista neighbourhood.

WATCH: MMA Gyms in Quarantine Episode II – Neak Ta

An unheralded element of many martial arts gyms is the community that supports them. Martial arts gyms are not only deeply embedded in the communities where they are located but they also build communities.

For gyms across Ontario, however, those communities will remain disjointed for a little longer. The gym leaders who spoke to the Sportspage said it’s largely been a mystery about when they can expect to reopen, what social distancing rules might look like in gyms, and how long they’ll have to be in place.

In some cases, there are other complications to keep in mind as well. Take, for example, Khatib’s gym, which relocated to a new Nepean location in February. After closing the doors of the gym due to the COVID-19 epidemic, a dispute with his landlord led Khatib to pack up his gym’s equipment without knowing whether or not he would be entitled to government support.

“If I would have known (what eventually came)… I would have stayed in the location,” Khatib said.

WATCH: MMA Gyms in Quarantine Episode III – Team Bushido MMA

Marci Morris, the executive director of the Ottawa Sport Council, said martial arts gyms likely won’t be allowed to reopen in Ottawa until the final stages of the larger restart process. She says there are a host of precautions that gyms will have to consider when they reopen: social distancing, the use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and sanitation. She thinks that these restrictions will likely be in place until a vaccine against COVID-19 is publicly available.

“Until we [have] a vaccine, there’s going to be an impact on every sport,” Morris said. “Every single sport and activity will be redefined within the protocols and confines that the provincial government has put in place. It’s really up to the sports to figure out how they move forward.”

The Sport Council, which supports and advocates for community sports organizations in Ottawa, is developing a “return to play road map” which will help local sports clubs consider the implications for reopening during Covid-19 restrictions.

To keep local gyms alive, Morris encourages people to stay connected online. She also encouraged local sports organizations to keep their membership updated through transparent communication.

“Be part of the solution,” Morris said.

Haché, who has trained at his martial arts academy since 2002, feels that the biggest hurdle for people to overcome to return to gyms is fear.

“I just hope people face their fears… Martial arts offers a unique form of education you cannot find anywhere else. The longer martial arts schools stay closed the longer we’re damaging something that’s a true gem to the community,” Haché said, adding that he thinks there’s many ways gyms can adapt safely.

Lok has been brainstorming ideas too, having acknowledged that the return of Neak Ta will make for “a hard business to come back.” When the gym reopens he said that class sizes will be cut down to encourage social distancing and precautions like cleaning and sanitation will be taken after each class. However, he’s still concerned that martial arts gyms will have the feeling of an “open prison” until they’re allowed back to normal.


David Agbaire is a member of The Leg Kick podcast, which discusses MMA and other sports news.

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