Australian BJJ vs. COVID-19

The following is a guest post written by Xavier Sales, BJJ black belt and head instructor of Alpha Jiu Jitsu Academy Richmond, Sydney Australia.

In Australia, “the Land Down Under,” beers and barbecues are the first things that come to mind. Aussies are well known for their laid-back personalities and resilient attitudes in times of hardships, and they’re always happy to lend a helping hand. Our bushfires had proven this just before the country was struck with another disaster which we would come to know as the first major pandemic our generation would live through. 

In the first half of 2020, COVID-19 would lock the world down and had the BJJ community drilling alone with their grappling dummies or family members at home. While there would be no more open mats and regular classes, we would adapt to a new normal of self-distancing, Zoom classes, and face masks.

Here’s how the Australian BJJ community — specifically the states of New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria — coped with the pandemic, from Zoom classes to grappling dummies and beyond.

New South Wales (Sydney) 

NSW BJJ schools were heavily impacted by restrictions when on March 16, 2020, an announcement of a state shutdown began. This time frame without jiu-jitsu would last 90 days, which proved to be quite a stretch for most practitioners and a very challenging time. The individuals that suffered significantly due to the lockdowns were gym owners/employees who were told to completely close their business doors. There were many uncertainties, especially financial hardships as for many, this was their only source of income. Luckily, our lockdown only lasted ninety days. 

Once the restrictions started to ease on June 13 for the fitness industry, the government put procedures in place, such as a 4-msq rule per person, a mandatory sign-in for customers and people visiting the venue, and sanitizing stations — all of which were used to help businesses operate as “normal”.

Fortunately, once restrictions eased, a competition took place: the Subversion Jiu-Jitsu Invitational. Their strategy was to host an invite-only event with live streaming. Hopefully, the future will be more exciting as we experience more restrictions easing and more event organizers gaining confidence to host community events. 

Here’s what Chris Sales (right), head coach of Alpha Jiu Jitsu Academy, had to say about his experience:

“The biggest challenge we faced during this pandemic was the possibility of losing years of hard work. The work the team and myself had built and the friendships we have made on the mats was my motivation to keep my spirits high for the community of jiu-jitsu, especially my own students and instructors who have become a significant part of our lives. I am determined every day to continue teaching as I myself have experienced the positive benefits of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and I have witnessed the positive changes my students have attained from the martial art. I have only ever known jiu-jitsu, which is the reason why we introduced Zoom classes to keep our students mentally and physically active. Zoom became a social outlet for some of our students. It fulfilled me knowing they looked forward to that one hour a day just as much as I did. I was one of the few at the time to turn my passion into a career, and if I was not able to teach and continue to contribute to the lives of others, my life would lack purpose — the purpose one gains from being a teacher and contributing to the growth of others.”

Victoria (Melbourne)

112 days of lockdown meant every gym owner had to pack away their kimonos, shut their doors, and try to find ways to stay connected with their students using online methods. It was a time of uncertainty, as some had many doubts that they would not reopen their doors for teaching again. 

As for students, this meant that there would be no more regular training and no outlet for stress relief, and all their personal goals in BJJ would come to a temporary stop. 

The state of Victoria, particularly in the city of Melbourne, suffered the most when it came to the lockdowns and restrictions. Their economy had taken a significant fall due to their 112-day lockdown, which is considered to be one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world. The population was forced to go into home confinement, with travel restrictions of a 5 km radius from a person’s home where imposed. Masks were mandatory, and residents were only allowed to leave home for essential purposes, including groceries and exercise for no longer than a period of one hour a day. 

Most of the jiu-jitsu schools in Victoria are located in the city of Melbourne, where all of the major restrictions were put into place. Gyms such as Absolute MMA, 10th Planet South Melbourne, and Debeen Jiu Jitsu were in the heart of the restriction zone. 

Here’s what black belt Mikhael Yahaya (right), who trains at Absolute MMA St. Kilda under Lachlan Giles, has to say:

“The biggest challenge I faced during the lockdown (COVID pandemic) was the loss of identity as an athlete and coach. I had honestly felt like a man without a duty or purpose. I didn’t know how jiu-jitsu would be in Australia (and the world) for the forthcoming future as well as my own future, since jiu-jitsu plays more than a significant part of my life. My life and my career were all up in the air. Eventually, I learned to find balance by actively working out, walking the dog, and going outside as often as possible (legally), and also lots of match study. I was very fortunate to be loved, have a roof over my head and food on the table the entirety of lockdown. Looking back, I managed to get in a lot of match study and come up with some new ideas and concepts to play with upon the return of jiu-jitsu. My main aim was to keep my sanity and keep positive through the lockdown and not pick up any bad or unhealthy habits. I managed to teach some Zoom classes, teach some online privates through technique videos, and just keep in touch with the community, which really helped. I knew for me to achieve my goals, I had to stay motivated and I basically had to adapt and embrace change (although frustrating).”


On the 20th of January, 2020, the Queensland government declared a state public health emergency followed by a shutdown on March 23, 2020, for all non-essential services. The growing number of COVID cases at this time meant all martial arts schools shut their doors as they were considered non-essential by the government and regarded as one of the highest-risk activities to the community due to the full-contact nature of the art. 

Queensland reopened on the 16th of May 2020 after also experiencing a lengthy shutdown and an impact on the fitness industry and every jiu-jitsu school in the region. 

Once restrictions eased on the 18th of May, the state would demonstrate a strong comeback by hosting numerous competitions with great efficiency and proper handling of the safety procedures. 

Here is what black belt Dan Castles from Infinity Martial Arts Kawana Waters had to say about his experiences:

‘‘I found that being without that constant mateship that you find when you enter a BJJ school was one of the biggest challenges for me. If you’ve trained for any length of time then you will know how integral that comradery is in your everyday life and having that taken away was a hard thing to adjust to not only for myself, but my teammates as well. To me, jiu-jitsu has always been a massive part of my daily routine and who I am. Personally, I’m not sure I would have a personality if I didn’t have jiu-jitsu. Now, knowing that something so important to me can be taken away through these uncertain times motivates me hugely to continue to develop in the art, not only for myself but my teammates as well.’’

As we slowly shift into a new year and recover from a phase of crisis in the jiu-jitsu community, the stories and experiences of some of the leaders above navigate us through how they reshaped a sport using different methods, even in times of uncertainties. They focused on their goal: to keep the sport and the spirits of their team alive. That in itself is inspiring. Australians are resilient individuals, and during a worldwide lockdown, we still found a way to keep training. 


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