Young people, especially teenagers, are fascinated by parkour. The mix of physical activity, muscular power, body control, and a culture of rebellion, freedom and self-expression have created a new street activity, akin to skate boarding. You may have seen it in blockbuster movie stunt chases and on YouTube. Pronounced “par-kour”, the name is a derivative of the French “le parcours”. This comes from “parcours du combattant” the obstacle courses used in military training.
From the outside, parkour looks like throwing yourself off rooftops, and living to upload the footage to social media. But from the inside, parkour bears more resemblance to a martial art, requiring discipline and hours of physical preparation.
Smashing out pushups in alley ways, ripping the skin off your palms in the search of landing that arm jump, sticking jumps onto the tiny surface of a handrail, and seeing your surroundings as a series of challenges and opportunities for exploration. This is some of what I experienced practicing parkour myself. Although I’ve stopped now, I trained for about 7 years and in this time I saw it emerge from an underground activity in New Zealand, to seeing instructional classes being offered by gyms, councils and schools.
But what is it exactly?
This question is notorious, as a certain delight is taken by practitioners in defying definitions. Parkour is not a sport as such – it has no governing body, no set of rules, and no standard definition. So it can be interpreted in many different ways. To offer one definition, “parkour is a physical discipline based around being strong and skilled enough to move freely in your environment.” It has elements of an extreme sport – pushing limits in perceived dangerous situations requiring speed, control, and physical mastery. It is also strongly influenced by street culture and youth culture.
Dance, martial arts, and gymnastics have a physical influence on the movements used. But, it also draws on a primal form of human movement. It involves running, jumping, climbing and generally moving in whatever way through the world using only the human body and no specialised equipment. In the age of the internet, inspiration can be drawn from far flung sources.
Parkour is often also called freerunning. Although, according to many practitioners, there’s a subtle distinction between parkour and freerunning. Parkour originated in the late 1980s as a way to move efficiently in emergency situations. It was strongly influenced by the military and emergency service background of its founder. However as it gained in popularity practitioners bought in influences from other physical activities. These include acrobatics, gymnastics and generally more of a focus on creativity of movement over efficiency. In order to separate this flashy style from the emergency-based goals of parkour’s original concept, some adopted the term freerunning. To simplify things, this article will use the term parkour to refer to both styles.
What about injuries?
The question on everyone’s mind when parkour is mentioned is injuries. Practitioners must suffer some severe injuries, especially due to wearing no safety equipment and practicing in areas not designed for such activities.
Will my child get hurt? The answer is that there’re no statistics on injury rates in parkour. In 2013 NZ Parkour surveyed 150 practitioners and found that 56% had been injured. Sprains were the most common injury followed by shin splints, and 37% of injuries occurred in the first year of training. Colloquial evidence from practitioners suggest that parkour has a lower injury rate than traditional sports and extreme sports. Their reasoning being is that parkour is self-controlled and there are no uncontrolled outside forces as there are in most sports, such as an opposing player, a ball, or momentum gained from being on wheels. It’s the nature of a physical activity however that a risk of injury comes also with it. And parkour does use the body in a very physical manner without any safety equipment.
Are you or a family member looking to start parkour? Then attending a class and learning from an experienced practitioner is a good starting foundation to prevent injuries and training mistakes. Many cities in New Zealand have classes available. To complement classes, or instead of classes, you should get involved with the local community of practitioners who’re already training. Most local groups have regular times to meetup and practice together. NZ Parkour maintains a list of the social media groups of each local community. Alternatively, you can dive right into attending a “jam”, which is a large gathering of practitioners. This way you’ll see some big moves being thrown and see if parkour is something you want to get further involved in.
In New Zealand training groups exist in most major cities, and indoor facilities are opening in Auckland and other locations. A charity has been established, NZ Parkour, for promoting the activity and self-development through parkour. Each year they hold a National Gathering for practitioners. Sport NZ identified participation levels of parkour in both its youth and adult Sport as “less than 1%” of those surveyed. While these levels are low, it’s the same level of participation as more established activities such as darts, weight lifting, or rock climbing. A feature length documentary filmed in New Zealand, exploring the philosophy practitioners hold behind their movements, was made in 2015 and is currently being submitted to international film festivals.
Parkour is continuing to develop as a discipline and sport worldwide and in New Zealand. One reason for this is that you can start it without needing to buy equipment or pay a membership fee. The appeal of mastering your body and your environment can be intoxicating. It can lead to positive lifestyle changes for your teenager as they take up strength training and healthy eating in pursuit of performance.
Have your teenagers got into parkour? Tell us about it in the comments below or over on our Facebook page!
• NZ Parkour http://nzparkour.co.nz/
• Move (Flow Like Water): A Parkour Documentary http://moveparkourdocumentary.weebly.com/
• Sport and Recreation in the Lives of Young New Zealanders (2011) http://www.srknowledge.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/YPS-Complete-5-09-2012.pdf
• Sport and Recreation in the Lives of New Zealand Adults (2013/14) http://www.sportnz.org.nz/assets/Uploads/attachments/managing-sport/research/Sport-and-Active-Recreation-in-the-lives-of-New-Zealand-Adults.pdf
• Movement Unleashed http://movementunleashed.com/
Max is the Father of two young children, a small business owner, and a student studying a Bachelor of Business Studies at Massey University. He also writes online at obstaclemethod.movementunleashed.com