On Community, Leadership, and Parkour: what I have learnt from the whole FIG saga and the Australian parkour community

“He said that [we] already have competitions. However, the competitions are not ones of war, battling for who is better. The competitions are about helping. Who can help the most people and spread their knowledge. There are no medals or prizes. The competitions are when different people meet up and share their views in order to teach and learn from each other. By doing this, you become the best as you show you are useful and helpful. The more people you help, the more useful you have become…you win.” – from Cali Meets David Belle, 2006

In 2006, the Australian Parkour Association (APA) was founded and inspired by the best information it could access at the time. It was before ‘YouTube Parkour’. Before Generation Yamakasi was easily accessible in English. Before Facebook groups and events. It was before any of the founding members of the discipline ran official workshops anywhere, let alone all the way on our side of the world. Since then, the Australian parkour community has grown to include hundreds of practitioners, and several community groups, all over the country.

‘The whole FIG saga’ I refer to in the title is basically the story of how an ‘innovative, urban sport’ (parkour) was ‘brought under the aegis’ (read: protection, control) of the Federation of International Gymnastics. Read FIG’s statement for the ‘I’m sorry, what?’ version, or this Guardian article for a nice summary of the full story.

This year has felt a little like watching an addictive Netflix series, at least in the parkour side of my life. I have questioned why anyone would want to be leaders in anything when it exposes you to so much criticism from people who are not willing to try to step into your shoes. I have questioned what community even means if it is divided into many pockets. I have felt torn between wanting to stay in what feels, at times, like ‘the ring’ – being visible (and vulnerable), sharing what I do, what I love, to help it reach others who might also gain from it – versus stepping away from it all, simply training in my own zone, in peace: no classes, no events, no social media. I have felt incredibly inspired, and also deeply disappointed. The two extremes of all my thought processes cancel each other out, leaving me with nothing but to ask: how do you really feel? What do you believe?

From the muddiness and growing pains that come with change, a few sentences keep returning to the surface. As with most things ‘parkour’, they aren’t just about parkour, but are applicable to almost everything.

You cannot please everybody and still mean something.

You cannot please everybody, full stop. I think it’s great that in the Australian and wider parkour communities we have reached this point of asking, how do we become more accessible? How do we show (rather than simply say) we welcome anyone who is interested in what we do? Inclusivity is important. Most people don’t want to hurt others, or make them feel excluded. But at some point, whatever you are doing, you have to decide who you are, what you stand for. And the moment you make that clear, you are going to be saying ‘this is not for everybody’. And that is ok. By all means pay attention and be sensitive to what is being said and also not said around you. By all means learn, and grow, and evolve. But keep your integrity, otherwise what else do you have? Hold true to the reason YOU are here. Why did you start this journey? What were your reasons then, what are they now?

The right person, or group, will come along to fill the gaps that are not yours to fill.

Try to be everything to everyone, and you become nothing to no one.

A community is only as strong as its leaders.

The only way to build a strong community is to invest in its leaders. This does not mean you only care about the leaders, quite the opposite: if you have no one to be a regular voice, a familiar face, a reliable heartbeat of inspiration and positive energy, what is there for people to be drawn to? What is there at all?

A good leader leads by example. In parkour it’s someone who trains at least as much as they talk. It’s someone who doesn’t just say être fort pour être utile (be strong to be useful), trouve ton propre chemin (find your own way), or on commence ensemble, on finit ensemble (we start together, we finish together) … but also lives these ideas.

A community is a reflection of its leaders. I have seen so many people all over the world rise up when something important is taken from them. It may be that the word ‘parkour’ has many inflections depending on who you speak to, but that is not the point (I continue to use this word but I am getting used to meaning art du déplacement (art of movement), for example. Mainly because it’s easier for me to pronounce, and just like that old favourite “where are you really from?” it side-steps that headache of either providing a tip-of-the-iceberg answer so I can continue training, or sitting down to tell a whole life story). The point is, the word – the practice – belongs to those who practice it. When you hear ‘Parkour World Championships’ … I mean … I’ll just send you here again!

The strength of this community shows we have great leaders. The founders of the discipline, and the thousands of newer coaches and role models all over the world, continue to drive this constantly evolving force. The fact that FIG has ‘claimed it’ hurts because it shows so much blatant disrespect, and threatens the core values behind what we practice. But ultimately, it means nothing. Intention is everything. Let’s keep doing what we do, and do it well.

Finally,

Just don’t take things that are not yours.

Just don’t!

The quote at the start of this post is from an interview with David Belle, and it may or may not still be something he might say. As community leaders from around the country meet to revisit our values and the direction of the APA this weekend, I think it’s worth remembering that our Australian parkour community was originally inspired by interviews like this. And as far as I understand it, those values still hold true for us:

  • we train to become better versions of ourselves
  • we train ourselves to help others
  • the word ‘competition’ is only meaningful to our practice, if by ‘competition’ you mean: the more people you help, the more you win.

 

 

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Melbourne Parkour Instructor Training, 2014

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I will just keep using this old photo because it makes me laugh 😄 – Australian Parkour Association Committee, 2014

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International Women’s Day Jam, 2015

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Do it in a Dress: Global Parkour Jam for Change, 2016

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NatGat, Canberra, 2017

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Esprit Yamak Australia, 2018

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Parkour & Cake, 2018

Parkour: the spectacle, the practical, the philosophical, and where competition fits in

Parkour as a spectacle is easy to define. It looks beautiful, impressive, terrifying, exciting. It’s often fast, it often flows, it can look animalistic and superhuman. It’s easy to see why it’s so popular on YouTube, why shows like Ninja Warrior have so many viewers. Parkour as it is widely understood – an extreme sport for super-fit adrenaline junkies and/or ‘crazy’ teenage boys  —  is so far from most people’s everyday lives that it fits perfectly into our constant hunger for a vicarious experience of danger, excitement, fear, pain and satisfaction from the safety of our couches.

Parkour as most practitioners understand it is quite different from this. Parkour is big jumps and small jumps. It’s rhythm, flow, balance, teamwork, strength and discipline. It requires self-checking and courage, an embracing of fear and challenges in order to be better. It’s on rooftops, it’s on the ground, it’s in cities and in nature. It’s quiet, serious, creative and playful. It’s personal and universal. It’s asking questions. It’s endless possibilities. It’s an extension of everyday life, a way of making sense of the madness. It’s experimentation, repetition, refinement, and precision. It’s damn hard at times. It hurts. But it also makes you stronger, literally building a thicker skin. Parkour is a means of getting from A to B, working with your environment rather than against it, or being complacent within it. Parkour is taking your power back. It’s a pathway to freedom in a world in which it’s easy to forget how much you have, how much you’re capable of, and what you have to contribute.

Parkour is not a competition. There is no winning in parkour, just as there is no winning in life. There is only constantly striving to do the best you can with what you have. Your ‘parkour career’ doesn’t end when you get injured, or you establish yourself as the best in the world (whatever that means).

You can’t measure who will be most useful in an emergency, or who trains the most sensibly to last longest, or who has grown the most on a physical, emotional, spiritual level since they started. There are too many variables. Those concepts don’t fit neatly into an event; they don’t make for very sexy TV.

But parkour movements fit easily into competition culture. You can compete to see who has the biggest jump, the fastest time, see how many techniques you can demonstrate over certain obstacles. I can see how this can be motivating, driving practitioners to become faster, stronger, more technically proficient. Obviously it can be fun, and bring people together as they cheer each other on. 

I’m not against having any competitions which measure some aspect of parkour skill at all. I’m not against a reality TV series showcasing the incredible athletic ability of people I already know are amazing to the masses. I have huge respect for people who have competed in Ninja Warrior – to me they are admirably brave and strong for not only tackling the course, but for not having my fear of epically failing in public! I have found it particularly empowering to see women competing on the same course as men, for the same prize.

My concern is that you can only compete with parkour movements. It can look like parkour, but the intention is different. And viewers will always, unless we work really hard to make it otherwise, assume a parkour movement competition is parkour.

Personally, since I was very young, I’ve lost interest in most activities the moment they turn competitive. I grew up around some pretty competitive people. Roaring, cocky, throwing racquets and clubs, slamming doors competitive. Play hard to win, even if it means getting injured, competitive. I know it wasn’t their intention – I was always encouraged to join in – but I never felt their passion for competitive sport. I was never very ‘good’ although I enjoyed playing, and this made me decide that I wasn’t sporty. So I retreated to my quiet activities of reading, writing and crafting things.

Maybe it was growing up in a competitive culture, a society in which things are validated by levels and awards. But as I got older and more passionate about writing, I craved something more than personal satisfaction, wanted to share my work with more than my teachers and parents. The only apparent option was to try and become a published writer by entering writing competitions for kids. One prize meant so much to me I cried when mum couldn’t find the awards ceremony venue, even though missing it wouldn’t change the fact that I had won a prize. On another occasion, I won a national short story competition. I still remember how I hung up the phone after receiving the news and danced around the house. When an extract of my story was read out to a full banquet hall, I heard someone behind me whisper to their neighbour, “Wow, that was actually really good!” (not knowing I was in front of them) and that’s still the greatest compliment I’ve ever received, one I never would have received had the competition not existed. So I think I understood then how much winning and recognition meant to others in sport.

The existence of writing competitions gave me a structure to work with – goals, deadlines, themes, and incentives. Not everyone would need it, but it helped me. As writing is such a solitary activity, and with no friends or mentors who loved to write like I did, it provided a way of comparing what I wrote to others my own age, and gaining feedback from professionals. I was awarded and published a few times, rejected many more, and the whole experience made me a stronger, more confident and more determined writer. It gave me perspective and kept me grounded. Not once did I think that just because my work wasn’t chosen, that I had ‘failed’. It just meant that that story wasn’t right for that competition, it wasn’t ready, or I needed to practise more. Again, I know not everyone would respond in this way, but it worked for me. 

Amongst creative writers, there is a strong mutual understanding that success is based on chance as much as skill and hard work, and that lack of recognition isn’t necessarily a measure of the quality of your writing. JK Rowling is a popular example – Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before a publisher finally saw some potential in it. Dedicated writers are persistent, consistent, and passionate; they write because they must, because it brings them joy, because it challenges and satisfies them. If you are writing for money or fame, you shouldn’t be writing, despite the fact that competitions and many avenues for recognition exist.

But back to parkour. Personally, I fell in love with it for many reasons, but it was it’s non-competitive aspect that kept me training. It reminded me that I can and do love moving. I love playing, exploring, being outdoors, challenging myself without worrying about tests, levels, shows or races. I can play and be challenged in my own way, developing practical skills and having fun, and that is not only ok but the norm.

I’ve been trying to work out why I reacted in one way to competitions in sport, and another way to competitions in writing. And I think the answer is that in writing, I was motivated by the confidence that I could be noticed – if I tried hard enough, if I learnt as much as I could, if I stumbled upon the right opportunity. And no matter what happened, because I never told anyone I entered anything unless my work was selected, I didn’t have to worry about anyone else’s expectations.

In sport, I was de-motivated by the acceptance that I had no chance of winning, or even helping a team to win. I didn’t want to get in the way. And no one seemed to be playing just for fun.

The question is, do we want parkour to be a thing that is a casual part of more people’s lifestyles, like walking a dog or riding a bike? Or do we want it to be a pursuit only the able and passionate need bother even try?

Honestly, I just want people to move more and play more, no matter their age, gender, background or ability. I would love to see more value placed on movement for movement’s sake, in the same way I have tried to build Creative Write-it up as a space for kids to be creative for creativity’s sake – don’t worry about grades or if what you do seems silly or doesn’t work. It’s the trying, the process, where the lessons lie. And I truly believe parkour has a lot to offer mainstream modern society, whether the ‘moves’ are part of your everyday life or not. How to face challenges and measure fear. A culture of effort, self-improvement, longevity, and sticking together. An awareness of environment, a connection to it. I’m not saying parkour is the only way to find these things, but it is definitely a way. Parkour provides an antidote to disconnection from the environment, ourselves, and each other, during a time in which disconnection from all of these is one of the biggest, most dangerous problems we face.

If parkour competitions had existed when I started, I’m certain I would have stopped very early on. It would have been like every other competitive sport I’ve tried and lost interest in because I was never going to win, and didn’t even want to. And I worry that now that competitions do exist, and they are likely to continue to, that many people like me will never experience the multitude of positives parkour has to offer. I worry about a shift in culture, from an inclusive, welcoming community, to one in which more people are driven by money, fame, and ego. In which more people are driven to win, no matter the cost. At its worst, I fear parkour becoming another sport which links competition and depression in both the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’.

If there is a way for parkour competitions to exist without losing our integrity or hurting the inclusive culture we’re all working so hard to cultivate, I’m doubtful. But, based on my experience as a writer who has found value in writing competitions, I’m also hopeful.

Competition culture isn’t going away. The media isn’t going to lose interest in an activity that seems ‘extreme’. But it makes the role of parkour coaches imperative, in the same way we (at Creative Write-it) are constantly reminding kids that the ‘creative writing’ component in their upcoming scholarship exam is only tapping into a tiny element of what it really means to write creatively, in reminding trainees that only so much can be taught. Training for competitions is a very specific skill-set that does not nearly encapsulate the whole of parkour training, in fact the competition element itself is not parkour at all. And training without any interest or intention in competing is just as valid.

Keep teaching, training, sharing, talking. As Julie Angel’s See & Do project suggests, the more people see, the more they will do.

It’s a tricky balance, but not an impossible one.

 

Further reading:

Federico ‘Gato’ Mazzoleni, Parkour in the Entertainment Language, 2016

Giorgio Ferre, Defined in Practice, 2016

Alex Pavlotski, Parkour and the link between Competition and Depression, 2016

Julie Angel, See & Do, 2013 – present