When all gyms in New York State were ordered to shut down due to Coronavirus concerns, that order included martial arts studios. Master Chong's World Class Taekwondo, which operates five branches around the Buffalo suburbs, responded with an unorthodox solution - virtual taekwondo, with live classes broadcast over Zoom.
"Keeping structure and keeping routine was going to be so beneficial to everyone," says Executive Director Master Michael Mertens, who operates the studios alongside Grandmaster Sun Chong. "For the kids, staying physically and mentally active and engaged. It’s so important for their health. For the adults, having an opportunity to work off their stress.”
After a few meetings and some experimentation, nearly 2,000 students could keep up with their lessons. Mertens started slowly with 15 lessons in his first week, but he plans on expanding to 40 lessons next week after clearing some early hurdles.
"Technology-wise, we had to figure out what devices we were going to use, what settings worked out well, which camera angles," he says. "And then of course we got thrown the curve that we weren’t even going to be able to broadcast this from our schools, but they had to have our staff do this from our homes.”
For Master Dominica Roberts, a fourth-degree black belt and head instructor in East Amherst, there were a few adjustments to make.
"Changing over to the virtual high-fives has been a little different," she says. "But still the engagement and seeing the students smile and accomplish their goals together with me has been great in the classes.”
While Roberts typically teaches in East Amherst, she's been forced to broadcast classes from her home. Roberts has taken the change in stride, with more than a hundred students logging into some of her lessons.
"It’s incredible," she says. "In uncertain times like these, it really tests the strength of our community. I will say that our Taekwondo community is so incredibly strong. That is really coming out now. Whether it’s through the amount of students taking our classes. Hundreds of students logging in, or the Facebook posts, and people are liking and commenting from different schools."
When I logged into one of her classes last week, I watched all sorts of students working on their form in a variety of places. Bedrooms, living rooms, even unfinished cellars were transformed into training rooms.
"I love seeing the students learn how to find their own Taekwondo space at home," Roberts says. "Families are really getting involved, too, which is awesome to see as well."
There's one aspect of Taekwondo that you can't really replicate at home - board-breaking (unless you have a lot of spare wood lying around). Masters Mertens and Roberts say they won't condone students breaking objects at home, and calling it practice. They say board-breaking will have to wait until the studios can reopen.