Parkour has changed since I started training…there are probably about twenty-five articles by practitioners that start with that general sentiment. Most of them tend to follow the same outline: share a few intense training memories from the early years, lament the fact that the current generation of athletes have gone astray from the path set by their predecessors, and conclude with some sort of admonition or call to action. This article will (hopefully) be one of the few that doesn't fall into these patterns of pseudo-nostalgia we've seen before.
The diversification of parkour and freerunning is something very important happening right now and has brought up issues that need to be addressed as quickly and efficiently (see what I did there?) as possible. Instead, a lot of us have been enjoying the growing success of these sports without worrying or planning for the future. The parkour/freerunning argument has been going on (almost literally) since the beginning, but I'm hoping by formalizing it a little and really digging deep we can come to an understanding that will have huge benefits for both these disciplines.
What exactly do we mean when we talk about "parkour" and "freerunning?" Parkour has tons of short, quick definitions like "A to B," or "reach and escape," and is often described as a way of learning to overcome obstacles as quickly and efficiently as possible. Beyond the physical side of parkour, there is a philosophical aspect that is inherent our definition of the discipline. David Belle has emphasized the importance of the philosophy to one's overall understanding of parkour many times. The original mottos of parkour, "be strong to be useful" and "to be and to last,” (borrowed from Georges Hébert's Methode Naturelle) emphasized utility. In the same way that the end goal of most martial arts is to learn practical self-defense skills, the end goal of parkour is to learn practical "reach/escape" skills.
The term "freerunning" was coined in 2003 to describe Sebastien Foucan's acrobatic take on parkour to an English speaking audience in the documentary "Jump London." Freerunning takes place in the same environment as parkour and uses the same amazing equipment - the human body. But where parkour's goal is inherently practical, freerunning focuses on creativity and self-expression. Where parkour is strict, freerunning is personal. It doesn't confine itself to a sense of practicality. In this way, it already seems obvious that these two disciplines are different. Although they use the same environment and equipment, the intentions aren't the same. Sports, games, and disciplines are defined just as much by their intentions as anything else. Both basketball and "H-O-R-S-E" use the same equipment and environment (not to mention many of the same skills) but since the intention is different, it makes no sense to say that basketball and "H-O-R-S-E" are the same game. Why wouldn't the same argument apply to parkour and freerunning?
Alright, alright, maybe they're different…but why are we having this conversation? Most of us train aspects of both disciplines, and the important thing is that we inspire people to get out and move, right? Well, yes…and no. As both parkour and freerunning grow in popularity, the way we present ourselves to the outside world becomes increasingly important. We should feel obligated to think about how our decisions today will affect future generations. We need to think of the kids.
When I started parkour, I was a nerdy 14-year old looking for ways to become a warrior-monk. I was exposed to parkour through David Belle's "Speed Air Man" and "On Avance Toujours" videos on YouTube and the apparent practicality of the training is what drew me in. Sure, the flips were cool but at the end of the day I wanted to be able to save my family from a burning building. If I had first been exposed to parkour or freerunning through Farang or Tempest, there's no doubt I would have been amazed and impressed…but I don't think I would have fallen in love with it. For me, the utilitarian philosophy that defines parkour is what hooked me - and acknowledging these different tastes is important.
When kids come to a parkour gym and complain that they aren't learning how to backflip, we shouldn't make them sit through months of vaults and wall runs when we could put them in a freerunning class. And we shouldn't have to worry about teaching kids tumbling skills if they just want to run speed courses and drill rail precisions. If kids want to explore both options, that's fine. But we should make sure students know it's also okay to explore one or the other exclusively, and develop their skills in the discipline they find more interesting. I hate seeing kids struggle through classes trying to be "well-rounded" when it's clear they couldn't care less about one side or the other. And I don't want the confusion and timidity that we as a community seem to feel about defining ourselves to alienate nerdy little kids like me in the future. Not to mention, the longer we try to figure out what it is that we're doing, the more likely it is that someone "outside" of our community will do so for us. And that brings us to the next reason this conversation needs to be happening right now - the media and the outside world.
Parkour and freerunning have a history of being misrepresented in the media. A lot of the blame for this falls on us. We don't have set definitions for what we do, or even a clear, overarching purpose for our practice. This gives people in the media an excuse to present parkour and freerunning as reckless roof jumping or "extreme flips." When we are portrayed this way, it lowers the credibility of what we do and makes it harder for big events, gyms, school programs, and outdoor parks to gain public acceptance. This misunderstanding also tends to spill into the commercial world.
There are tons of people who practice parkour and freerunning for fun, but lots of the world's top athletes are trying to figure out how to make parkour their life. In a world that revolves around money, this means figuring out how to market parkour and freerunning. Whether you're teaching classes, doing parkour-based stunts in movies, or freerunning in live shows, who hires you and what they hire you for depends largely on how you're perceived. I've seen plenty of parkour-oriented commercial jobs go to amazing freerunners, and vice-versa, because the companies hiring them assumed we all have the same skill sets. Wouldn't it be great instead to see companies hire athletes who actually specialize in what they want? I'd love to see Phil Doyle or Callum Powell in a movie chase scene instead of Chase Armitage or Damien Walters (not to take anything away from some of the crazy stunts they've done). Or have Dylan Baker throw down some next-level descents as an alternative to more superheroes corking off various models of automobile. And the first step toward making that happen is to admit to ourselves, and the public, that these two awesome things are different. Once we start to respect all the amazing, diverse athletes pushing these disciplines in different ways and specializing in different things it follows naturally that others will as well.
You may be reading this and even agreeing with a lot of what I'm saying, but still asking yourself, "So what? How does this affect me or my training?" The truth is…for most of us, it won't. I'm not saying that every time you do a punch front you need to ask yourself if you're doing parkour or freerunning. We all have our reasons for pursuing our love of movement. I'm not writing this blog in the hopes that it will split the community down the middle, or create tension between traceurs and freerunners. What I do want is for everyone, individually and on a community-wide scale, to look at their intentions and end goals. Think about how everything we do together will (for better or worse) build the future of these beautiful pursuits. If you find that you don't align yourself with the ethos of parkour, that's fine. I'm not asking you to change your movement. I'm just asking that you respect the fact there are still some of us out there who want parkour to stay practical. So maybe if you're ever interviewed for a newspaper article, you say you practice parkour and freerunning instead of just parkour. Or tell people that, while both disciplines are similar on the surface, they have different philosophies and intentions. Every little bit helps.
At the end of the day, I firmly believe that movement training is for everyone. Whether it's parkour, freerunning, tricking, dancing, basketball, or Zumba, using our bodies to explore the world around us is a life-enhancing experience. I'm hoping that by having this conversation now, our communities are able to simplify and communicate the amazing movement messages we have to share. We can't expect other people to understand us if we don't understand ourselves…so let's get talking!
**If you want to hear Dylan Baker and I talk more about the history and philosophy of parkour and how it differs from freerunning, check out our podcast on www.parkourdojo.com**
Max Henry is a Parkour athlete and instructor in New York City.