In October 2019 I had the chance to lead a session for the Parkour „Übungsleiter“ education, a preliminary step for the state recognized instructor certificate in Austria.
For the past years I have reflected on my style of teaching parkour and what values I want to transport. And to me it comes down to 3 major things:
- Outdoor Training
- The use and creation of challenges
Before heading on here is a quick overview /table of contents of the article
Table of contents
Parkour is an outdoor activity. It was born on the streets of Paris, Evry, Lisses and in the woods of Sarcelles. Parkour is Parkour because of the way people trained and developed it. Training outdoor, amongst other factors is what separates us from other disciplines like gymnastics for example. Sadly training outdoors is not something I can expect and take for granted in every practitioner I meet. Even when I look upon the next generation of coaches I don´t see this. And that´s a shame. It indicate the parkour culture is losing its touch with being outdoor, with being in the city, with shaping our spaces. I see people who openly admit not wanting to teach outdoors because of safety issues or because of fear. I see people who have rarely trained outdoors themselves in their years of practice. In my own session at the “Übungsleiter” I have heard the words (more or less like this): “I am too tired to train on concrete” – This still sticks to my head and I find it sad.
To cut the story short. I expect a good coach to focus his/her sessions outdoors. AND I expect a good coach to be able to deliver a beneficial session anywhere, geographically speaking. It should not matter if you are in a small town close to the alps in Austria or doing a session in a neighborhood of a big city you have not been before. Be there, do it, and do it outdoor. Sure there are occasions where indoor is better, but I am speaking on a general basis here.
I have a natural curiosity that is also reflected in my practice and in my teaching. I love looking for and discovering new spots AND making a different use of already known spots. If my character would not have this feature I would have stopped parkour very early on as at the times I had started there was nothing! We discovered the spots people train on right now. We saw the chances a place had to offer. We created movement where other people saw nothing. If you don´t like exploring you will always train in other peoples shadows. Every spot you go will have the stigma that someone else already did this or that, and you will feel either a need to achieve something similar OR a feeling of “oh alright” I can do this too. But when is the last time you were 100% certain that no one else has done this or that ever. Or that YOU must be the first person to train here? This is what parkour is about, because like this you take temporary ownership of a spot and forge a deep connection with the spot but also your own movement. So when I look at a coach I expect him or her to have made experiences like that. These are the experiences we want to foster when coaching. These are the experiences that are valueable to practicioners. Exploration is key to these experiences and also key to making use of the outdoor environment. Especially when having to deal with unknown territory. Exploration to me is a skill. One of many I want a coach to own.
The use and creation of challenges
The former attributes I described would be nothing without the knowledge and tools of creating a beneficial learning experience. “Exploration” and “being outdoor” directly transfer into the skill of creating challenges to achieve our goals when coaching. Every session should have an underlying goal, something a coach wishes to achieve for/ or transport to his/her participants. The “challenge” is a tool of doing this.
Why don´t I say exercise? A challenge is a type of exercise. Its outcome is not sure because it would not be a challenge if it is 100% sure you can do it. On the other hand something physically impossible can never be a challenge. Let´s go with the Cambridge dictionary definition of a challenge: “(the situation of being faced with) something that needs great mental or physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person’s ability.” Creating challenges in parkour sessions IS a challenge itself. It is a skill. It serves a coaching goal. It is done with responsibility for the health and safety of the people we teach. We should create meaningful challenges. 1000 push ups is in most of the cases not meaningful. A challenge is foremost a test of ones abilities.
What I want to discuss further and what I have actually never written down yet is my own method of creating challenges, probably a big part of my own teaching. I want to do this because I hope other people can benefit from my approach. Use it to their liking and adapt it to their coaching. I don´t expect anyone to copy it. This approach has served me well over the years. Be it in designing the infamous Night Missions (the most extreme form of this approach so far). Be it when I was teaching my weekly classes on a regular basis or when teaching private sessions for people with specific needs.
Categories of challenges
When exploring my environment in the process of planning a session and developing challenges I often find myself in what I perceive as a complex environment. If the spot/area of your session is not well known to you or if you don´t know exactly how your group will be for the session (in terms of skill, in terms of size, etc.) then it becomes gradually harder in planning the right session. The more you as a coach don´t know about your session and everything that comes with it the higher I would say is the complexity of the task of creating a good session! Simplification is ONE means of dealing with a high grade of complexity, and the way I tend to think about challenges poses such a way of simplification. At least for a first step of planning a session.
Using categories of challenges for designing a session!
Imagine you are planning a session at a spot. You know what coaching goals you want to deliver and what the rough content of your session should be. The only thing you don´t know yet is what to do where exactly. What movement do you want to see where. What type of challenge do you incorporate?
The nature of a challenges
I for my part have come to think of challenges in certain categories. These are so far:
There are a thousand ways of balancing. The simplest way might be standing upright on a bar. But balancing can be made impossibly hard. QM on a rail. Balancing on a chain? Doing other tasks while balancing? It is a basic skill in parkour that you simply can´t be good enough at. A good balance is the key to successful movement and successful bailing.
I often use climbing challenges at the beginning of a session as a means of getting to know my students and their skills. A technical climb on low level might show the level of strength they possess, their coordination, their recklessness or their thoughtfulness. It sometimes serves me as a diagnostic tool on the one hand but as a challenge in itself on the other hand. A technically easy climbing route up to a few meters height might be the sort of test for a student’s self estimation and mental strength.
How do people get stronger? One way is doing strength and conditioning. Packing strength and conditioning in a challenge makes it more fun. But strength challenges can be a test of ones ability or a good way to get people out of their comfort zone. However you do it, always ask the question why you are doing a strength challenge. And: what type of strength are we training? (explosiveness, strength endurance, power?)
Moving over an area without touching the floor. – I often combine this with teamwork. Presenting the problem in terms of a certain route for example, and then making a group of people help each other along the way. To me this serves as a way of developing communicational skills as well as problem solving.
Breaking jumps might be one of the most important processes a parkour practicioner can go through. I always tend to present levels of difficulty for challenges like these if I am not sure how capable people are.
Movement at height / dealing with real fear
Usually there is no big consequence in messing up a jump. So for some people it is tempting to throw themselves into a move without thinking too much. Introducing height to a challenge is something I like to do on a regular basis as it is an aspect of training I have neglected myself for a long time. The result was that I froze up as soon as I had to move on higher ground. Training dealing with height and/or fear benefits the overall parkour training in my opinion and liberates a persons movement. This has to be done with great care though, always.
…is something a lot of parkour practicioners lack. A lot of people focus on single jumps instead of whole lines. Endurance might be the biggest neglected aspect of peoples parkour training. Don´t be that person. And don´t let endurance slip when you teach. An endurance challenge could be repeating a fixed line 10 times in 10 minutes. Or 20 times in 15 minutes. Depends on the line. Depends on the physicality.
I have shown people secret spots of their cities. For example an underground tunnel passing through the city center or abandoned bridges that lie in the dark. To me this is a category that is not really a stand alone category with a well defined aim. Urban exploration to me is a way of appreciating your environment. A way of forging a connection with city space. This is so related to my idea of parkour that I tend to incorporate this into my sessions sometimes. As a personal experience rather than a means of progressing a persons parkour skills.
…and many more
These are some of the categories when I think of challenges. And each type of challenge may serve a certain goal in my session as you can check out in the descriptions and examples above. But if you think of the categories of challenges as the CONTENT / NATURE of a challenge there is yet another aspect of a challenge that you can and should have in mind when designing it. This aspect can be adjusted and can be designed too.
The context of a challenge or – the setting
The setting can be worked with and changed and every setting can serve its own goal.
Teamchallenge or working alone
Training alone has benefits. Achieving something alone has benefits too. For example breaking a jump. On the other hand solving problems together or sticking together in training when things get hard is something to consider when designing challenges. The question to answer for yourself when considering if a participant of your session should move on their own or in a team is: what do I want my students to learn from this? No promises it will work out BUT having this thought process dialed in is important.
Moving with a backpack as added weight vs. no added weight
A lot of times people feel comfortable with just moving. Add their backpack into the game and their hard acquired skills become useless. Adding the backpack is a simpleand effective means of scaling exercises. I don´t say you have to have the same moves under your belt with or without backpack. All I say is you still should be able to do a climb up, a wallrun and some basic moves even with your backpack on. If you can´t move with your backpack on what would you do in a situation where you HAVE to? Being an emergency situation or trying to keep up with the Storrors on one of their roof missions? The sad answer to this question was presented to me back in 2009 when we got robbed in London – ever since I run, jump and climb even with 10kg on my back. – Sometimes…- https://www.we-trace.at/2016/01/15/the-vauxhall-robbery/
Timed challenges and added stress
Adding time to a challenge can switch it up and make something totally different of it. In the “Übungsleiter” I had a simple offgroundchallenge with a degree of height in there. It was technically easy. I introduced timed laps and wanted to encourage the teams to go as fast as possible. I hoped this would force the group into a more uncomfortable situation as the challenge itself was not (yet) demanding. As I did not check up on every team I don´t know if it worked in the situation but I hope you get the idea.
Height and fear
I have already introduced this as a type of challenge but to me this is a type of setting as well.
Competitive vs. non-competitive
Introducing time restrictions for example is a way of making a challenge competitive. If you compared the times between groups it would make the challenge even more competitive. But beware competition bears the risk of injury and short sighted decisions. As with working with heights, introducing competition should be done with great care. As a coach you want to know your group and how they might react to competition.
…and many more
By adjusting the NATURE of a challenge as well as its CONTEXT I dare say it is possible to cater to most of the coaching goals you want to transport. Of course it needs a lot of preparation. It needs a lot of planning. It needs the willingness to try new things as a coach and a certain extent of creativity. The categories I have listed above are just examples of my own coaching practice. You will have other categories in mind or maybe you have already developed other ideas. Maybe you can think of a dozen different settings to use in a challenge. That would be awesome! Because that is exactly what I am aiming for with this approach.
Planning your students effort / performance
Challenges should be scaleable to cater to every skill level and to the whole group. If you think of a session as a chain of challenges, thinking in the proposed categories allows to judge the type of exhaustion, the type of effort your group will be faced with. It also allows for a well balanced planning of the type of effort you will demand of your students. Climbing might demand strength in the arms but balancing might relax the arms and demand concentration. Endurance might be hard on, well, endurance, but working on height might allow for some rest endurance wise. Chain your challenges together wisely and you can achieve quite a high performance output of your students without killing them physically. That´s the main concept behind the Night Mission where we cover a distance of up to 25km in 9hrs of constant movment! (The distance is not the aim of the Night Mission it is merely a result of transporting oneself from one spot to the other).
My categorization of the nature and the context of challenges is neither whole nor is it 100% defined. Sometimes categories may overlap, be a subset of a different category, whatever. I realize this. BUT remember that this system shall help reduce complexity not serve as a definition.
If this system helps any coach to bring more structure into his/her session I dare say mission accomplished. Especially to new coaches or coaches from a way different background I assumed this way of thinking can be of benefit. That´s why delivering this approach was my main aim at the “Übungsleiter” in October 2019 but also at a session in New York earlier this year. If you have any questions or if you want to discuss this further you can reach me at alex(at)we-trace.at