A mature view on Parkour and Freerunning.
By Tom De Backer, teacher and tracer at the Antwerp Parkour School.
What are those kids doing running around in the streets and over rooftops?
By Tom De Backer, a 36-year-old kid running around in the streets and over rooftops.
The 1924 expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest is shrouded in mystery. Though George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were seen making a final summit attempt on 8 June, they never returned, sparking debate as to whether or not they were the first to reach the top. Then, in 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary completed the first official ascent of the world’s highest mountain.
How old are you?
The question is invariably the same. New kids always want to know how old I am. If they address me as ‘sir’, I rebuff them. Being called ‘sir’ makes me feel as old as they clearly think I am.
Call me an adult, for surely that is what I am. At work, in my family life and everywhere else, I will eagerly stand up and take responsibility. But when I play around at parkour, I reconnect with the kid inside of me who is happy with a simple brick wall. And there are many brick walls in the world nowadays.
What is parkour?
Check YouTube if you have never done so before. You are welcome. There are at least as many definitions of parkour as there are people practicing it. It has all been said before, and you will not read any all-encompassing definition here either. Instead, consider this: I cannot teach you how to do a move; I can only show you how I do it. You must do it for yourself, to learn how you do it. Not a single move in parkour has been tied down in a definition accepted as superior to all other ways to perform the move, and there is, consequently, no single definition of parkour itself either. You are free to both move and define your movement any way you like. Call it a sport, an art or a philosophy, or anything else you can think of.
So what are you kids doing?
One way to answer that is to take you through the process of becoming a tracer. But be warned… reading, like tracing, can be dangerous – and not just because you might get hooked. I like to divide that process in three steps: the spark, the changing eyes and the mental block.
It seems to always start with a spark. You see someone else move in a new way, and it ignites a memory in your muscles. A memory of moves your body had forgotten. When asked when they started doing parkour, tracers will often counter with “when did you stop?” which is a tongue-in-cheek reminder that the human body was built for movement. And not just for long distance running, but for overcoming obstacles as well, in both the African and the urban jungle. Kids in streets everywhere love nothing more than to clamber onto and jump off of everything they come across. Tracers do the same, but with stronger muscles, cleaner techniques and more underlying training.
The changing eyes
When that spark ignites, some will try their hand at parkour. Before you know it, the basic moves are mastered. That is when your eyes change and you see your city in a new way.
Walls become shortcuts, stairs jumping grounds and what first were obstacles now are challenges. New paths appear everywhere, new moves beckon and new places come within reach. Before long, you will realise there is no place we cannot go and no path we cannot take. Though at this point, seeing a path does not mean you will survive it.
When a journalist asked Edmund Hillary why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he famously replied “because it is there”. Tracers will recognise that sentiment, and like to say “because I can”, when asked why they jump.
The mental block
When I warned you earlier, what follows is why. Keep training and you will come to a move you are afraid of, say, a running jump from my roof to yours. We call it a mental block and our approach is what keeps us alive.
You can give up, come back later or rush in. None are wrong, but in all three cases you must come back later. Do not give up permanently, that is a life lived in fear. But do not rush in either if you cannot come back to rush in again. Only you know your limits.
So it is dangerous after all!
Of course it is dangerous. Concrete hurts. But our body has an instinct for self-preservation. And instinct is a stronger safeguard than helmets, knee pads and fences. Where the human body prefers broken arms or legs to a broken back and will stick out limbs in a fall, parkour aims to replace that reflex with a much better mental attitude: fail safe or do not try. We apply techniques like a shoulder roll to save both limbs and core from harm, even at heights where no amount of arms would otherwise save your back.
When asked about the Mallory controversy, Hillary replied “coming down is an important part too”. Similarly, we are not content with mere survival. We love to jump, but no jump is worth six months of relearning how to walk. We jump because we can, and we will not readily risk that ability.
That shoulder roll is but one of an entire system of safety moves that we borrowed from other disciplines or came up with ourselves and that allow us to safely bail out of any situation. When we train, this is what we do. We master these moves in our minds, drill them into our muscles and instil them into our instincts. Tenzing and Hillary did not achieve their feat on luck alone. So if you see me jump, know that I can make it.
But why do it on my roof?
Because your roof has challenges not found anywhere else. Because we see paths where others merely see fences. Or simply, because we can. Our physical and mental preparation allow us to go places that before were out of reach. But we take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints. We move quietly and unobtrusively, but neither rush in nor fear to tread. And if caught, we will stand up and take responsibility.
So go ahead and ask me my age, I will answer and add that I hope that when you are my age, we will both still be doing parkour. Age is, after all, only another obstacle.
Tom De Backer (view picture above) is a 36-year-old teacher and tracer at the Antwerp Parkour School in Belgium. Starting Parkour at – what most people call – a later age, has given him a unique insight in the fundamentals of the sport.