Parkour despite blindness and loss of hearing?!
Insights into the possibilities of coaching parkour – experiences.
The following article and the interview are the result of a private session with a client. At this point I want to express a big thank you for doing the interview with me. My deepest respect goes to M. and her day to day accomplishements. – The german version of this article can be found here: https://www.we-trace.at/2018/11/22/parkour-ohne-sehen-und-hoeren
M. gradually lost her sight when she was 10 – 13 years old. A few years after that she lost her sense of hearing. Ever since M. can´t see nor hear and has to rely on her other senses. She is 25 years now, studies law and approached me with the wish to try parkour.
The biggest concern was communication. How do you communicate if you cannot talk or show what you intend to? How do you give feedback as a coach? I knew it was possible to write short words into M.’s palm but that would be a very limited way of communicating. I decided it would be best to outline the session beforehand so M. will know what will be going on during the training, what exercises will await her roughly and why we will be doing them. In written form and through the assistance of a special keyboard M. can read Braille on her computer. During the session I would rely on touch/and 1 word input through her palm.
I planned the session in 3-4 parts:
Have you ever tried standing on one foot and closing your eyes? – Then you know it is hard as hell to keep your balance. For M. the heightened difficulty of balancing with no sight is her everyday life, so working on it came natural. We went to a spot with a huge circle of small bars. A bar is 3 steps long with a one step gap followed by the next bar-element. I gradually increased difficulty and it was inspiring to see how M. coped. In the beginning, it was all about standing on the rail with my assistance (both hands). After a while, and after taking a few steps, the distance she could walk was getting bigger. As the need for assistance decreased, we gradually removed one of my hands, leaving her with 1 hand to hold on. In terms of communication I introduced a small and quick double-squeeze of her hand to indicate that her next step would have to be bigger due to the gap between the bars. After a few failed tries she managed and the squeeze became a sort of warning for the rest of the session.
Spatial awareness I and movement memory
After balancing, we went to a set of short walls that formed a tight and enclosed space. The space was not bigger than 5×5 meters, much like a small room cramped with a couch and other potential obstacles. M. knew what the aim was, but I did not tell her exactly how the exercise would be. I guided her to the first wall and swiped across her palm in my direction. I don´t know if that was helpful but she sure did understand to follow me. I laid out a way for us. First it was simple without any special moves, just using the walls as a guide rail entering the “maze” and exiting it again. After a few rounds, I introduced the possibility to cross over walls, thus changing the way we did. M. managed automatically with a (most of times) controlled step-vault. We did a few rounds of the new line, me gradually and intently moving away from her, not providing her with much guidance. At some point I waited for her at the start and wrote in her palm “ALONE”: meaning, she should go for it on her own for the first time. M. remembered all the corners, all the direction changes, all the dangers (screws sticking out of the walls, uneven floor,…). She moved swiftly and followed the path perfectly. I moved with her, but she didn´t know. It was just in case she fell, so I could spot her.
Spatial awareness II
The next part took place on a concrete wall that went from ground level up to neck height. 2 feet wide and about 40 meters long, forming a route that went around a set of trees. The aim was to get M. to walk the whole thing alone navigating the edges of the wall with her feet, preventing a fall by doing so. Most blind people use hands and their stick to navigate, usually (this is just my observation) dragging their feet behind. I remember one of my first sessions training blind on intent with Phil from Germany, who visited Linz back in the days. It was pouring rain and Phil introduced me to blind training along a given route (with sharp drops in some places, should we fall). I was shit scared but we worked it out and we got pretty fast at the route after several tries. A technique we used was the one I wanted to show M.. We had the weight on the back foot quickly scanning the area in front of us with the front foot. If we hit concrete, we knew we could step there, if we felt the edge we knew the drop was there. For M. the exercise was hard, because parkour people are used to moving on the balls of their feet. For someone with no experience in parkour the heel is where the weight is, so navigating with the front foot was hard because the weight was already on it. I think this can be trained and will be of benefit. So this was my feedback I gave M. in the end as well.
The last part of our session was exhausting. Climbing down and up a set of four walls. It was a straight line but for M., who mainly moves on flat surfaces, it was exhausting. I hope we broke a little barrier by ascending and descending these walls and I hope it gave her confidence in her skills and a sense of what she is capable of.
Can you tell us more about your illness and how it developed? To my knowledge you were in good health until the age of 10. What happened?
In my early childhood I got diagnosed with Retinitis pigmentosa. According to stories, I stumbled a lot since I was four years old. I seemed to could not make out obstacles. Our latest guess is that the illness was caused by a failed vaccination. I haven´t really sensed anything wrong with me then, but the worse it got the more scared I seemed to have gotten as a child. One of my earliest childhood memories is me sitting on the street on a summer day, observing ants – I could practically count them. Or another time, when I was driving to my grandparents place in an evening and where we came across a church that was lit. It was disturbing for me that I slowly couldn’t see that anymore. And yet, my brain has treasured all these memories, as if I had known back then that at some point memories is all that I will have left.
Until the age of 10 I could see comparably normal but it was already bad at that time. But I had a sort of vision where I could see blurred outlines and where I could work with conventional writing. A year later this was not possible anymore and I had to learn Braille (something that felt easy to me). I sometimes wonder, if my eyes lost their training once I used Braille and if that´s the reason my vision faded so rapidly after that.
As far as I know the weakened sense of hearing is part of the illness. This has developed slower though. The acute hearing loss (Hörsturz) came 2011.
How did you get the wish to try out parkour?
Over the internet. Coincidently I stumbled across parkour on a website and was fascinated. I have read a lot about it and the wish to try it came soon. I did not have any hope of being able to try parkour at all, but after having shared this wish with a friend of mine one led to the other. In May I got a glimpse of parkour, when a friend of that friend showed me. Shortly after that I found the link to your website (Parkour Austria).
What were your expectations for your first parkour training?
I´ll be honest, I had little expectations. As mentioned, I was rather skeptical because I had no idea if it would work at all. But I have to say I am reliefed and satisfied that everything worked out well in the end.
What is your impression of your first parkour training?
I have the feeling of repeating myself 🙂 – As said, I was surprised that it worked out that well. For instance, the weather was not the best, but I barely noticed it during the session. I was focussed and in the moment and could switch off for 1,5 hours. In my everyday life that is quite hard to do, that´s also why I enjoyed this time so much. Sure, communication is a bit complicated and it’s hard to do everything as intended, but I have the feeling this will improve over time.
Is there anything else you want to say?
I hope to do Parkour regularly now. It has gripped me and I´d be happy to make it a hobby I can do besides my studies. I am happy with this first chance of trying parkour. THANK YOU!