Breaking the Jump: The Heart of Parkour
For the last few years one of the workshops I’ve delivered at events and seminars around the world has been entitled Breaking the Jump, which is designed to focus on that aspect of parkour / freerunning which has always struck me as perhaps the most central, most essential , part of our discipline – that being the moment of fear and truth that arises whenever you face a jump, movement or challenge that requires you to be 100% present in order to stare it in the eye and overcome it. To ‘break’ the jump is to find that combination of focus, relaxation and commitment that allows you to let go of the fear and put everything into completing the task.
We all know this moment, we’ve all faced it and with varying degrees of success or failure. It never goes away, though it may become easier to deal with through experience and good practice, and is arguably the most important guide in your training process in parkour. You fear things because some part of you knows you can do them, and may therefore attempt them. Your fear responds to this potential in an attempt to dissuade you. Learning how to understand your fear reaction then, how to gauge whether it is protecting you or holding you back, is vital.
It’s generally understood that there are only two major fears we are born with and that are part of our hardwiring, fears that we can’t remove and are a part of our startle reflex. One is the fear of sudden, loud noises and the other is the fear of falling (note this is not the same as the fear of heights – acrophobia – which obviously can be overcome). Our brain has instinctive reactions to these two things in order to protect itself from harm, and that’s a good thing.
However, this reaction can become an over-reaction if we’re not careful, and this can stop us doing things that we are perfectly capable of. That’s when fear becomes a hindrance rather than a protector, and when it is not serving a useful purpose you would be better to do away with it.
Fear should be treated like a cowardly friend: sometimes his advice might be good and worth listening to, but you wouldn’t want him running your life! Fear is a natural part of our make-up, it keeps us safe and acts as an early-warning system when you’re approaching potentially high-risk or dangerous situations. And forewarned is forearmed, as the wise ones say. So you don’t want to conquer your fear entirely; you need it. But you want it to serve you rather than dominate you.
The problem is that our fear response is not very precise. You will feel fear when looking at a jump that is just within your ability and you will feel fear when looking at a jump that is just outside of your ability. How can you tell which it is? The only real answer to this is experience. With time, training and improved self-knowledge you will be able to discern between the two and thus know whether it is a fear you should push through or one you should listen to. It’s a fine line to tread, but to break jumps you have to learn the balance required to walk it.
The Call of the Jump
My good friend Stephane Vigroux once pointed out that most practitioners go through a similar process when discovering and breaking new jumps, and he explained it as a five-step pattern. These are, roughly:
- The call of the jump – this is simply seeing a jump or a challenge, noticing it and being drawn to it.
- Familiarisation – getting up close and personal with it, assessing the take-off and landing, the distance, the surfaces, the subtle difficulties, everything. This can take time, but it’s worth it. The better you know yourself and your abilities and limits, the quicker this part of the process will be as you are able to draw on a pool of experience of similar jumps and challenges that will inform your approach to the current one.
- Fear – now you’re looking at it seriously, have examined it and assessed it as do-able, now the fear wells up inside you, knowing that you are close to actually attempting the challenge. This is where the inner battle begins for most of us, when things get very real very quickly. The brain is flooding the body with chemicals to improve its speed, reflexes, acuity, everything in order to give you the best chance of making it. The downside of this is that if you are not sufficiently used to this change (often referred to as an ‘adrenal dump’) you will react badly to it, begin to shake and lose focus, even freeze up. People will use all sorts of techniques and methods and visualisation patterns here as weapons against the fear, and generally the more experienced you become the faster and more efficient these methods become.
- The decision – that moment when you say to yourself ‘Right, I’m going to do it. Today. Here and now.’ This is a critical part of the process, as before you make this decision it can all be speculation, assessing the challenge for another day perhaps. But once you’ve made the decision you now have something more riding on the outcome. Now it’s a self-established goal, a truly autotelic choice, and to back away from it after making the decision to do it can be a hard thing to live with.
- The ‘break’ – and this is the final stage, actually doing the jump, overcoming the challenge, completing the route, whatever. This is the moment when you let go of any fear and doubt and immerse yourself fully in the moment. This is the ‘zone’ state described in countless other physical activities, sports and disciplines. It’s a great place to be, and probably the safest place to be. Hesitation during a movement is our worst enemy, so commit and stick to that commitment.
What I’d like to focus your attention on here is the first stage – the call of the jump. This is perhaps the most important part of the entire process, and the most revealing. Why? Because the very act of noticing a jump or a challenge is usually in itself a sign that you are ready or nearly ready to do it. Jumps that are far beyond your current level of ability, mental or physical, you simply won’t even notice. You’ll walk right by. And if someone else points it out, it won’t scare you deeply because you know that you are not going to attempt it. Yet.
The Heart of Parkour
For me, and for many others, this process of breaking the jump, this moment of truth when you lean into your fear and put your body and mind to the test, is the essence of the discipline – the very heart of parkour.
Let me be clear at this point that this isn’t about taking unnecessary risks, exposing ourselves to danger or looking for adrenaline-fuelled thrill-rides. That most certainly isn’t parkour. Breaking a jump can mean your first vault on day one of your training. It can mean a short jump over a noticeable drop. It can mean a highly technical and tricky movement that has almost no risk of injury with failure, just a blow to your pride. Or it can mean a ‘true jump’, that being one you cannot rehearse and simply cannot afford to get wrong.
All of these moments present us with an inner obstacle to overcome, a surge of fear-reactivity that will do its best to dissuade you from going any further. And it’s in those moments, when you are alone and exposed to the very visceral nature of the challenge, that you must make a decision and find the strength and resolve to achieve your goal.
I have often thought of parkour as a mirror that shows one’s true nature and capabilities. Every time you step into the arena of parkour training that session will act as a perfect and utterly ruthless mirror for you, giving you a complete and stark appraisal of your status on that particular day. It will tell you if you are too tired to make the jump, too unfit, too weak, not skilled enough, not brave enough. It will tell you if you are too ill, too distracted, lacking in focus, not in the mood. The mirror won’t judge you for this, it will simply present you with the facts. And those facts can be very hard to accept at times – but that ruthlessness is what sets parkour apart from many other disciplines, I believe.
It’s very hard to lie to yourself in parkour training. It’s very hard to cheat or pretend. Either you can make the jump on any given day, or you can’t. Plain and simple. You’ll get a truly honest assessment, every single day – no sugar coating, no mollycoddling, no false praise. And that’s a rare and good thing to have in your life.
Seek to Break
So head towards that moment of fear, as often as possible. Become accustomed to it, familiar with it. Try to break at least one or two jumps a week, or a session, depending on how regularly you train and how experienced you are. The mind is very similar to a muscle in some ways – the more you train it the stronger it gets, so regularity of practice is key.
Listen to the call of those jumps, respect them and realise what great gifts they hold for you. Eventually fear will become like an old friend; you’ll see it coming each time but rather than run from it you’ll smile, nod and get to work. Soon it will begin to act for you rather than against you, signposting possible dangers and telling you to pick up your game when necessary. And as you go you’ll begin to realise that the ‘you’ who lands the jump is subtly but different from the ‘you’ who took off. You’ve gained something. You’ve learned something. And you’ve also stripped something away – something you never really needed.
The carry-over this process can have for every other aspect of your life is immense. Once you’ve learned how to handle fear on a truly immediate and primal level, such as one finds in parkour, the little fears of everyday life begin to seem very small indeed. Being liberated from these fears can and will open up whole new avenues of self-development and potential for you, wherever you are in life.