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Opinion: Preston Muaythai gym owner on her industry’s fight to survive Covid-19

Posted on - 7th November, 2020 - 2:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Business, Health, Opinion, Preston News
Members training at Red Kite

This is a guest post by Rachel Joyner, owner of The Red Kite School of Thai and Kickboxing.

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Whether gyms should stay open during the new national lockdown in England is an increasingly hot topic.

The media is reporting on businesses taking a stand against lockdown measures, but the focus seems to be on the owners’ apparent, skewed personal beliefs about the reality or even presence of Covid-19 – rather than the very real issues of what small business owners are facing.

As the owner of a small training studio delivering Muaythai classes to the people of Preston and the surrounding areas for 13 years, I have been pretty disappointed by what I have been seeing. Not only from a national Covid-19 legislative perspective, but also the practise and behaviours demonstrated by many in my sector since reopening in July.

That being said, the issues that gyms and other small businesses are facing are significant. When people are pushed into a corner that could see them lose everything they’ve ever worked for, they’ll either come out fighting or give up. For the Muaythai sector, ‘giving up’ isn’t something that comes naturally. In fact it’s something you’re trained ‘not’ to do. How people choose to fight is then what becomes important.

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The world Muaythai circuit is a very heavily male dominated arena. There’s a lot of pride, testosterone and bravado. Although there are many positive alliances throughout the Muaythai circuit, when all your associates are alphas, there’s always going to be competition for ultimate supremacy and domination. I think this is where Covid-19 has come along and really attacked the Muaythai world.

Decisions are being made to close some gyms but keep others open. There are assumptions that a certain amount of financial support will cover one business the same as the next. In addition, many different types of businesses are being grouped into one large category. All this mean there’s a whole bunch of people out there being forced back into a corner – emotionally and financially.

These are people who aren’t accustomed to managing these kinds of emotional challenges. They fought with everything they had to win the first battle. Some lost and it’s devastating to see clubs that have been on the circuit for decades being forced into submission. Those who won the first time round are being sent back to round one, physically and emotionally drained.

During the first lockdown, it was difficult to observe strong-spirited men reduced to panic and desperation. Guards came down and the fear was clear to see. I was seriously concerned for the wellbeing of many of my friends on the circuit, who confided suicidal thoughts due to what they perceived to be a fight they couldn’t win. Some landlords were demanding full rent, and bills still had to be paid.

Though many ‘did well’ from the grants, others still see everything they have balancing on a knife edge. Many gym owners are the main breadwinner in their families, and their desperation is understandable.

It was certainly a relief when the gyms were allowed to reopen again in July. Those who survived were quick to update themselves on what we could and couldn’t do. It was here that my disappointment began.

Though there are Thaiboxing and Martial Arts gyms working strictly within the guidelines, many aren’t. Rather than standing together as a community, a split developed between those working within guidelines and those not – and those stuck in the middle being torn in both directions.  

I’ll reassure the public right now and say that I think it’s really unlikely that there’ll be many martial arts gyms around that don’t currently have mats so clean you could eat your dinner off them. Following the cleaning guidelines seems to be something we can all agree on across the board. However, people have become selective about which rules they follow and I’ll tell you why.  

Rachel Joyner with gym members
Rachel with members of her gym, before the pandemic

It is impossible to socially distance two metres whilst engaging in padwork or sparring, but many gyms are using legal loop holes or awarding themselves the title of ‘Professional Thaiboxer’, in order to engage in these two important practises.

Asking a thaiboxer not to use pads or spar whilst in training is a bit like telling a hairdresser they can do everything else but cut hair. Like telling a publican they can only serve draft but spirits and wines are off the menu. Like serving a pizza without any topping. After a period of having none of those things, people would settle for this for a while but it’ll get to a point where it’s just not enough to keep people interested.

Indeed, in Muaythai, partner work is essential to allowing a person to reach the required levels for us to sustain competition fighting within the sport.

Another thing we all tend to agree on is that running a Muaythai or Martial Arts club isn’t just about physical fitness. Though Muaythai is a fantastic way to maintain physical strength and health, your training partners and team become like family members. We rely on each other to stay safe and to get the most out of our training sessions. Coaches teach about anatomy, diet and discipline.

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At my studio I also teach consequential and critical thinking.  It’s relevant to the sport and can really help in our personal lives. We help with people’s self esteem and confidence and encourage high standards of behaviour. This is what makes the choices being made by some coaches, to ignore some of the rules, a bitter pill to swallow.

We lead by example, so the decisions we make within our businesses need to be well thought out and taking account of long term goals and consequences, as well as the immediate ones.

As we go forward into this second lockdown, I am desperate for the Government to give more serious contemplation to the specific area of martial arts and small community gyms. I’m also desperate for my peers and associates to think carefully about how they move forward. Contemplating how their own actions can effect other people in their industry. If we call for gyms to stay open because ‘Covid-19 isn’t real’ whilst picking and choosing which parts of the guidelines to follow, there is little hope that any of our issues will be taken seriously.

Red Kite Covid-19 guidelines
Rachel has put Covid-19 procedures in place at her gym

The people making the rules need to understand what our clubs and gyms actually provide to their constituents. They also need to understand that we’re heavily reliant on partner work. They need to generate more specific guidelines that will make partner work possible in some capacity. 

I want them to understand that though it may not be clear to see, they are dealing with a very vulnerable sector of society. Telling people that they need to live with Covid-19 whilst providing insufficient funds for people to sustain their businesses, homes and families whilst doing so, just isn’t good enough. 

There are some simple alterations we could make to guidelines to help prevent serious outbreaks whilst also being able to engage in partner work.  They only need to ask us and they will get the answers and reassurances they need. 

Read moreFull list of businesses which are closed or open under lockdown 2

Then, of course, we need the gyms to work within those guidelines and be accountable if they don’t.  Regardless of peoples personal view points on Covid-19, you can’t tell a person that they may not be able to feed their kids for an unspecified period of time and not expect some form of strenuous objection. Equally, you can’t expect to choose to not work to guidelines, without there being some form of consequence.

I believe it is feasible for us trade safely whilst living with the virus. I also believe the Government and the industry alike need to do better than they are to make this happen.

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What do you think about Rachel’s take on how Covid-19 is affecting gyms? Let us know in the comments.

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