Progression And Fear In Parkour
I was never a gymnast, but I’ve trained with gymnasts and their coaches to improve my parkour. Some of the most productive training sessions I’ve ever had involved a spotter and a big, thick crash-mat. The most important thing I learned from the gymnasts I’ve worked with was the baby-steps technique to breaking down a scary skill into a progression of movements so that weak points in the chain can be found before I land on my head. Fear is a strong motivator, but it can also lead to a triggering of your built-in panic reflex which almost always leads to spazzing out in the air and a disastrous crash-landing.
Many of my friends in the parkour community are not gymnasts, but are not plagued by fear and over-analysis. These crazies tend to throw themselves at new tricks like lemmings off a cliff with the mantra, “Just commit, and fall on your ass a few times”. Gymnasts have a more organized and methodical approach. For example; when a gymnast is learning a back-flip for the first time, they will do drills to perfect each part. The set, the jump and the spin are practised relentlessly for a few sessions before they actually attempt the skill. This methodical approach extends into ever-more complex skills and tricks, from a somersault to a double-back-full, there is always a clear-cut method to break down each skill into a set of individual movements and micro-skills that once perfected and connected, form that effortless-looking cool new trick that you wouldn’t even think of doing a month ago. I firmly believe that this break-down/drill/polish system is the secret to landing just about any crazy, counter-intuitive skill.
So how does the methodical gymnastic approach help us in free-running? As a visual learner, having the opportunity to watch my gymnast and coach friends break down a large number of skills has been a huge eye-opener for me. I can generally examine a skill I want to obtain and break it into its parts, then analyse what makes each part vital, and what makes each part work. After that, it’s pretty simple to develop drills that can strengthen each micro-skill that the original skill is made up of. For example, last spring, I wanted to learn to jump onto a picnic table and monkey-flip off of it, but anyone who has never had balance-beam training can attest that a backwards flip onto a size-limited surface can be terrifying. My mammalian brain was too scared — too locked in analysis paralysis– to just throw myself at this new (to me) skill. To slay my fear, I had to break it down and practice each part over and over as a micro-skill. To drill the first part of the skill, I box jumped onto the picnic table doing 5 sets of 15-20 reps 4 days per week followed immediately by practising monkey flips on the ground on a piece of a side walk the same width as the top of the table. After a month, the skills linked together for me and my first attempt went off without incident. After practising the move 5 or 10 times, I had it almost 100% dialled-in, and was able to perform this cool combo skill even when thoroughly exhausted.
A gymnastics background has proven to be very helpful in defeating self-doubt while learning parkour skills. If you’re scared to throw your first back-flip, or to earn the skill back after not throwing down for awhile, you can rest assured that some of the valuable tools learned in the course of gymnastics-style training can be picked up by spending some time training with friends who are gymnasts. If you don’t know any gymnasts, try going to an adult-drop-in night at your local gymnastics facility, and make some new friends who are into the same kind of movement that you are pursuing. I firmly believe that you will never become great at any athletic pursuit without training, so get out there and train!