Kicking and punching your way through the lockdown

A karate-ka performing a kick. Source: Unsplash

Karate-ka’s, as practitioners of karate are called, usually practice the Japanese martial arts in a group. Because of the strict Corona measures in some places, karate clubs in the UK like The Newcastle University karate club decided to move all their training sessions online.

Since the start of the first lockdown in March, karate clubs in the UK recognized the challenge that was ahead of them pretty fast. Sports activities were mostly only allowed to be practiced outdoors individually during the first and second lockdown. This resulted into UK karate clubs using online tools to keep their students active.

With mass vaccinations underway, we look back at a period where karate-ka’s around Europe deployed creative ways of continuing their way of life.

‘’I knew we just had to adapt. We’ve always found ways to train throughout my entire life,’’ says Steve Potts (5th Dan*), chief instructor at the Newcastle University Karate Club. Potts invested in quality cameras, as his standard webcam was not good enough, and set up a space to practice. ‘’I was conscious straight away about the students having limited space to train in their accommodation.’’

“There are always ways to train.”

– Steve Potts

With his TV screen and computer desktop, he is able to watch every movement of his students and give feedback. The training at home took Steve back to when he was young and used to train in his small bedroom. ‘’If the weather was bad and I couldn’t go outside, I would train in my room constantly, a 2 meter square place.’’

The enthusiasm echoes through his students. ‘’The main thing is the fact that I’m still training. Just being in a group that encourages you, that definitely helps,’’ says Nasreen Khathun (1st Dan), a black belt who found the experience to be very uplifting. ‘’I’ll still be able to stay on track for my second Dan grading, rather than having to wait an extra year.’’

Karate is a sport that is about self-improvement in order to progress. Through the online training, Khathun has the feeling her footwork has actually improved. ‘’I feel like maybe I’m more aware of my surroundings now.’’ This shows that there are positive elements to online training as well.

‘’It is down to the individual, if you’ve got the right mindset, you can be very focused,’’ says Potts. Through the training in a confined space, he saw the balance of both his beginning and experienced students’ progress.

Newcastle University Karate Club training online, source: Facebook

Across the Channel, clubs in The Netherlands were able to offer outside training sessions during their lockdown periods. ‘’Training at home just doesn’t work,’’ says Maik Venema (3rd Dan), instructor at Shotokan Karate Noord Nederland, a karate club in the Dutch city of Groningen.

With the measures being different in The Netherlands, Venema contacted the local municipality who gave permission to train outdoors. ‘’You miss the direct interaction with online training. Karate is very much copying what the other person is doing.’’ Venema did not consider teaching karate via Zoom, as he believed that the students would only improve marginally compared to outdoor training. However other forms of training at home were also being considered.

‘’In the beginning of the first lockdown we started doing challenges, with a nice video, show your best kata,’’ says Jeroen Klompmaker (3rd Dan), instructor at the same club as Venema. A Kata is a choreographed pattern of martial arts movements that are meant for single practice.

Not a lot of response came from the students, because most students did not feel comfortable to share a karate video outside of a karate setting. The ones that did, were put together into a video.

In terms of online karate, Klompmaker believes that ‘’if you can’t do anything at all, there are benefits to doing karate online. But then you can only do stance movements.’’ Both Klompmaker and Venema believe that physical classes either outside or inside are much more beneficial.

Where outdoor training is a luxury in the UK, but the standard in The Netherlands, both countries are still far removed from competing in physical tournaments.

The Dutch Karate-ka’s showing their kata’s. Source: Shotokan Karate Noord Nederland

However, karate tournaments have started again in some places. In the Serbian city of Kragujevac, the first tournament was held in October after some Corona measures were lifted.

‘’Actually I was surprised, it was a really well organized,’’ says Dragana Borjan (1st Dan), a national karate judge from Belgrade. During the tournament, public was not allowed, and competitors had to wear facemasks at all times.

The start of the tournament marked the beginning of the return to competitions for many karate clubs in Serbia. Training for regular clubs started in September. Before this time, training in Serbia was done via Zoom.

Borjan is currently doing a PhD in the Slovenian city of Maribor. She noticed some differences in how clubs in Slovenia provide karate training to their members.

“I saw that some coaches put their training videos on YouTube channels”

– Dragana Borjan

Through these videos, people can practice at home and keep up with their karate.

A karate training from a Slovenian instructor. Source: Andrej Cafuta

‘’If you don’t have any other option, it’s better than nothing, but in person it’s better,’’ says Borjan. However if she would have the option to choose between Youtube or a Zoom class, she would choose Zoom. ”Because your coach can correct you,” says Borjan who also believes that the motivation of the karate group helps.

Outdoor training has been a huge help for many karate clubs during the pandemic. And if physical classes are not possible, the fighting spirit lives on online. Karate-ka’s seem to agree on one important aspect. That is that karate can be done both safely outdoors and indoors while sticking to the Corona rules. It seems however, with every country having their own restrictions, karate has a way to kick back.

* A Dan grade is a name of rank in karate. Once you gain your black belt, you are 1st Dan. After that, a karate-ka trains (years) to reach a higher rank.

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