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