In 2004 I watched the Channel 4 documentary 'Jump London'. Since that day I have been fascinated with the sport of parkour (sometimes also referred to as free-running). From 2007 to 2011 I practised parkour, training with Parkour Generations and blogging for them from 2010 to 2013. Today, I still train occasionally and write pieces summarising research on parkour for a general audience. This page showcases some of my blogs for Parkour Generations.
The Evolution of Parkour
Parkour sheds light on the evolution of large ape behaviour and tells us that moving efficiently between two points is a twenty-million-year-old survival skill.
Who takes risks in parkour?
Research shows how personality traits and a concept called 'self-efficacy' determine whether a traceur takes 'reckless' risks or not - and how this can be affected by training and experience.
Move like an animal
While technology means humans can travel faster than any animal across land, sea and air, we can still learn a lot from their special abilities to move.
Parkour is full of references to animals and their movements. Core moves of the discipline have names like the cat leap, slide monkey, cat balance, and kong vault (ok, I realise that ‘kong’ isn’t a real animal, but bear with me). Sebastien Foucan once said that we traceurs should try to move like animals through our environments. Stephane Vigroux’s nickname is ‘the monkey’ (le singe). One of the Storm freerun team goes by the name Spyder, and the title of one of David Belle’s most popular parkour videos was a play on the words Spider-Man.
Why the obsession with animals? I believe the answer is simple: we are trying to mimic their movements and ways of negotiating through their surroundings. To some observers this might seem ridiculous. Why would you want to move like a spider, or a monkey (or even a spider-monkey)? For one, you might look quite silly (a feeling which anyone training on their own in a public space will have had to deal with), but beyond that, you might say that humans can move perfectly well without having to imitate animals.
It is exactly this kind of arrogance which assumes that because of our technological innovations, our superiority over the rest of the animal kingdom is assured. We don’t need to outrun big cats any more, or evade other creatures which hunted our ancestors. We have vehicles, chemicals, guns and other inventions to enable us to control those animals which pose a danger to us – most of the time. Moreover, our technology has given us the edge over those animals in space and time – we can fly, sail and drive faster than the fastest animals on the planet, and access the resources we need for survival, like fuels, easily.
Despite all this, however, I would say that it is precisely because most animals must rely on their physical movement for survival that we can learn from them. Lest we forget, humans have only been around for the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Animals like the crocodile, which can move swiftly and silently on land and in water, have existed for around 200 million years, compared to our rather small 2 million years or so. They must be doing something right to stick around so long, and movement is surely a part of it.
Many modern humans may have forgotten that we are still animals, and by comparison to lots of species, our locomotive skills leave something to be desired. This is increasingly the case today, as technology makes our lives easier and more sedentary. Some people move very little altogether, which has significant implications for health. But not all humans are ignorant of certain animal’s superior movements.
The ancient Chinese, for example, spotted the effectiveness of animal movements almost two thousand years ago for the purposes of exercise. Around a thousand years ago they applied this to their martial arts, and developed animal forms, or ‘styles’ of kung fu, based on the distinctive movements of certain animals – like the eagle, snake, leopard, monkey and praying mantis. I’ve placed a link to some examples of these below. It’s captivating to watch a person take on the movements – even subtle mannerisms – of an animal and apply that to movement.
When we practice parkour, we should aim to move as fluidly and efficiently as possible. There is a lot to learn from the natural world in our discipline. So next time you see an animal, watch how it moves and think about how well adapted it is to its environment. Challenge yourself to move as it moves (unless it happens to be a bird launching off a three-storey rooftop!). While animal movements and the idea of imitating them might seem strange, if we watch and learn from those creatures who move over and around obstacles more smoothly, powerfully or gracefully than us, we can make another step towards mastering our own movement.
Change your perception
When does a high wall become a low wall? When you practice parkour. Research from the US shows how parkour alters perception of obstacles.
It’s often been said that parkour changes the way you look at your surroundings. You might observe features of the environment that would perhaps go unnoticed to the non-traceur: the gap between two walls, the texture of a surface, a pipe or ledge just within reach. Where some people see a set of stairs or a walkway, you see a series of moves to get from one side to the other. The increased feeling of freedom and fun that accompanies this way of seeing our surroundings changes our interactions with the environment and our ability to move through it.
But the effect of practicing parkour may extend even further. Last year, US-based academics Jessica Witt, J.E.T. Taylor and Mila Sugovic tested this experimentally. Their findings, reported in the journal Perception, make for interesting reading. Perception is typically defined in cognitive psychology as the interpretation of stimuli reaching the brain through our senses (sight, sound, touch etc). Depending on how we interpret our body’s sensory inputs, what we sense may not be the same as what we perceive. The old Indian story of the blind men and the elephant illustrates this, where each man touching an elephant perceives something different: a tree from its trunk, a rope from its tail and so on. Similarly, people may ‘sense’ the same thing in a similar way, but perceive it completely differently.
In their experiment, Witt, Taylor and Sugovic tested a group of traceurs against non-traceurs (‘novices’) with the obstacle of a wall. Each person was asked how confident they were that they could climb the wall unaided, and then was asked to estimate the height of the wall. Traceurs consistently perceived the height of the walls as lower than they actually were, and novices as higher than they were. These differences correlated with the individual’s confidence about climbing the wall. So, if you are more confident about climbing the wall, you perceive it as lower than it really is. The researchers made sure that the traceurs and novices were approximately the same age and height, to be confident that these factors were not influencing their results.
These findings provide further evidence for a theory knows as Action-Modulated Perception (AMP). This suggests that a person’s ability to act within the environment changes their perception of it. So, if you feel fit, strong and know you can jump a certain height or distance, your interpretation of the sensory information coming into your brain from all around you is changed, and you literally see obstacles as smaller and easier to negotiate than a non-traceur. This counters some previously held ideas in psychology that a persons’ perception of their environment is somehow objective and independent of their behaviour in that environment. Parkour is helping psychologists to push the boundaries of their understanding, just as we try to push the boundaries of our own abilities every time we train.
The fear factor
Fear is a part of everyday life. No one is born with it - we learn it. And we can un-learn it too, according to a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Here's how.
We’ve all been there – the fear. Standing at the edge, looking out or down, and scared stiff. Thinking about what might happen if we miss, and don’t quite make the jump. We step up, take a look, then step away with a shake of the head. We might not even be particularly high, or on the edge of large gap, but there’s just something about it that plays on our minds, and our bodies. It’s part of the mental and physical challenge of parkour. More than that, it’s a completely normal reaction to danger, an evolutionary mechanism that served our ancestors well and preserved their genes throughout history in place of more cavalier competitors.
But no-one is ‘born scared’; fear is a learned response with a biological basis. And just as it is learned, it can be unlearned. Though psychology in its various forms has tried to tackle this for over a century, it was not until the start of the 21st century that Harvard neurobiologist Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize for showing how brains learn and unlearn how to be scared. There is even a rare brain condition called Klüver-Bucy syndrome where, amongst other difficulties, people cannot ‘remember’ fear, even if they can still experience it in the moment. Needless to say, Klüver-Bucy sufferers have an extremely hard time navigating their way around the world without memories of fear, mainly because it leads to inappropriate behaviour like approaching total strangers as if they were friends. Fear serves a purpose.
But fear can be a hindrance too. In psychotherapy, individuals with debilitating fears of one thing or another – from quite logical phobias like dangerous animals (more common for women) or heights (more prevalent amongst men), to less obvious sources of danger like the fear of peanut butter sticking to the inside of your mouth (yes, there is a name for this - arachibutyrophobia), or clowns (coulrophobia, that’s one for the pub quiz) – are taught how not to be scared. This is achieved in behavioural therapy through ‘exposure’, gradually and systematically desensitising individuals to the thing that scares them, and sometimes ‘flooding’ their perceptual apparatus with a direct, full encounter with the source of fear. And it’s pretty effective. A therapist might construct a hierarchy of what scares the individual, ranging from hearing the name of the thing (low on the scale) to a real-life personal experience of the thing (at the top).
A ‘cognitive’ (thinking) element to overcoming fear bolsters the physical, behavioural approach, as people are taught to challenge the belief systems (schemas) which lead to them being scared by certain objects or situations. Simply having it pointed out to you (or pointing it out to yourself!) that you performed an action, and it didn’t end in disaster, can help you more widely to reappraise the assumptions on which you hold back from a particular thing – believing that it will harm you even before you’ve attempted it.
How can we apply this to parkour, then? Well, next time you’re faced with a jump or other movement which scares you, think about how you might gradually deal with it. Could you attempt the same distance on the ground, or on the same surface but lower down? Can the move be broken down into component parts, each of which is more manageable – and less scary – than the full move? Can you then gradually piece them back together? Can you construct a simple hierarchy of what scares you, and how much, to pinpoint the part you need to overcome? For example, are you scared of rail balancing in general, or only on those trickier circular rails? Do you get scared once the rail gets narrower than a couple of inches, or does it have to be over 2m off the ground before you get anxious? You can then work steadily up the hierarchy, gradually becoming accustomed to the action. You can also breathe deeply and relax yourself to lower the stress as you come to perform the move.
Blane often advocates a technique of imagining yourself performing a simple move in more scary circumstances, with a drop where the floor is, or thin air where a safety rail is. If you are able to enter into the spirit of this, you will ‘arouse’ your nervous system more whilst making the movement, and get used to performing it (for example, a cat leap) under a state of higher stress. The leads to the final point – habituation. The more you train, the greater your exposure to fear, and the higher your threshold for being scared will rise as you become desensitised to it. Before you know it, you’ll be stood on that edge, and you won’t be scared any more. The best achievement is not being able to recklessly throw yourself around because you’re ‘not scared’, but instead lies in conquering a fear that you have personally experienced. Depending on how you train, this experience could be a weekly, or even daily event, and that sense of achievement can be one of the best things about parkour.