They arrive at the park in crisp white gis, white belts carefully knotted. Before long, sensei Nigel Nikolaisen joins them and they move to a far corner of the park. Tucked between the tree line and the playground, twin brothers Carter and Korey Reise practise their karate movements.
The trio works through the drills slowly as a lawnmower buzzes in the distance. Another neighbour waters their garden. But they’re the only ones in the park, keeping two metres distance between them as Nikolaisen offers prompts and subtle changes to the boys’ positions. When they forget the pattern, he gently chides them. For 45 minutes in the corner of the park they work on drills, precious face-to-face contact with a coach in a time when virtual sessions have been king.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in B.C., Campbell River fitness studios doors closed and many got creative with their solutions on how to be of service to their members.
Nikolaisen got on board early with alternate offerings at his karate school: Northwest Shito-Kai. While his dojo’s doors remained closed, the learning continued.
Founded in 2002, the Willow Point dojo had around 50 students before the pandemic. There was a steady flow of tiny feet in and out as classes started after school and continued into the night. His most dedicated athletes would even practise in the morning and then get a ride to school with Nikolaisen. But ever since the pandemic, Nikolaisen is the only one permitted inside.
“It’s still the sanctuary that I built. I can go in there and feel at peace,” he says.
But he says it feels a little bleak.
“It’s hard to remain optimistic but then in the same breath, when I get in there and see that even though we’re not in the class together I still see about 20 to 30 kids working and doing their karate in their living rooms or whatever. The energy is that it’s still there and it will always be there. It’s more of a spirit thing.”
So while he couldn’t have students in the dojo with him, Nikolaisen immediately started looking at other options. He began experimenting with Zoom, a video conferencing platform that rose to fame in the pandemic.
OK, he thought to himself, I can do weekly Zoom classes. This is going to work.
Initially, he was filming about six videos a week – and spending 40 hours editing them. It wasn’t a pace he could commit to.
“I can’t do that,” he says. “I’m going to burn out.”
Instead, he redesigned his curriculum and now has a members-only section of the dojo’s website with video lessons and other information organized by belt level.
He now does between six and 10 Zoom sessions a week with students tuning in from home and will also meet them for physically-distanced one-on-one sessions at the park.
While he lost quite a few students at the start of the pandemic, he gained some from further afield. Nikolaisen now teaches students as far away as Terrace and overseas.
With all karate competitions cancelled, Nikolaisen has seen a shift in his students’ attitudes. They’re less “gung-ho” on the competitive side of the sport.
“All of a sudden when we’re getting together to practise, I’m feeling a different – something more authentic I guess,” he says.
Nikolaisen has noticed some of his students improving at a faster rate than when they were in the dojo. They have the opportunity to continually reference his videos at home and are being held accountable to their practice.
Normally, Nikolaisen would host two events per year where students had the opportunity to test for a higher belt. Now, he can see their improvement over video. He’s left a few new belts for students on their doorsteps.
Now as public health restrictions are easing for fitness businesses, Nikolaisen is working on a plan to bring students back to the dojo.
“I’m hoping to get back to work, but in the same breath I kind of like the way it is now,” he says. “It’s just not financially stable.
“I like doing Zoom classes. I like meeting in the park. I like watching that the students have to be accountable to their own practice.”
He’s learned a lot too. And many of those lessons he’s hoping to bring into the dojo.
“We’re not just going to fall back into the old way like everything is going back to normal,” he says. “I don’t believe normal is coming back, so for the new normal, I’m looking forward to all the lessons that I’ve learned so far.”
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