It’s not fancy, but it works.
Mike Stephens sets an iPad on a small table in his empty studio at Grand Valley Kenpo and logs into Zoom.
One by one, a bell rings as another of his karate students’ faces pops up on the screen. Stephens’ face breaks into a big smile as he greets each of them.
With Colorado under stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic, Stephens isn’t alone in trying to help his karate students continue to learn. Karate, self-defense and martial arts instructors in town, as well as local gyms, fitness centers and personal trainers, are adapting lessons and workouts from on-site to on-screen.
“You can see on my iPad, you have 30 different kids, one’s in the backyard, one’s in the garage, one’s in the bedroom with bunk beds in the background,” Stephens said. “They’re all in different places together and it’s really fun to see. We’re just making the best of it.”
Stephens was given the OK from the Mesa County Health Department to conduct lessons from his studio as long as he has no students on site. He also has a studio in his garage at home, where his wife, Keli, who is also an instructor, and one of their five daughters, a brown belt, can assist him.
“I’m kinda winging it,” Stephens said. “Usually when I have a class I’ll have three or four instructors and I’ll teach the white belts a move, a self-defense move, and I’ll have them go in a small group with an instructor. They’ll do the move so they have an instructor and a body to work with.
“Then I work with the next rank and I’ll keep doing that until everybody has a group of kids to work with and an instructor.”
That isn’t possible for the near future, so after warming up, he starts with the white belts and moves through the ranks, but instead of splitting into groups, everybody learns together. The more advanced students also do the beginner moves, which are good refreshers. On Wednesday evening, his group of young students learned techniques ranging from white belt to purple belt level.
“It’s a little bit hard because I can’t have them work with anybody else. That’s the logistical part of it,” Stephens said. “The white belts, when you’re done with your white belt technique, now you’re going to learn a cool yellow belt technique. We’ll do that and at the end of the class I have 5-, 6-, 7-year-old white belts working on brown belt techniques with the 9-year-old brown belts, junior brown belts.”
He’s running one class for children and another for teens and adults, twice a week, and also gives private lessons — virtually — from home. He’s posting techniques on the studio’s YouTube channel so students can practice on their own.
“With my big classes, gosh (Monday) we had 30 in our class, it was a huge class,” he said. “Thirty households around town, which was wonderful.”
Along with a more group approach, Stephens has also had to tailor his lessons for his students’ surroundings, with no throws or takedowns, and no one-on-one work.
“We do some warmups, some fun kicks and drills that we do in our art, but it’s a curriculum we’ve always done,” he said. “I’ve had to modify it to get it to work from home. For me, it was either that or I can’t charge any of my students for the next month and potentially lose my school. You do what you’ve got to do.”
As the students were warming up, Stephens called out some helpful hints since the kids were working in more confined spaces than usual: “Don’t hit your lamp or TV!” and “Don’t hit your sister!”
After demonstrating a move, Stephens went through a couple of repetitions with the group, then sat down in front of the screen to watch them more closely, complimenting them on their efforts and answering any questions.
“Look at my yellow belts doing a purple belt technique,” he said.
Not only are the virtual lessons helping Stephens stay in business, what the students learn is helping them move up in rank. Even more importantly, the classes give the kids a sense of normalcy by staying on a schedule. Parents of the young students watched the class, and often helped out as practice partners on defensive techniques.
As he wrapped up class, Stephens smiled and told the young students, “This was so much fun. We can’t be together, and it’s a bummer, but we do what we can to keep moving forward. This makes me so happy.”