The Fear Factor

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.