Focus and Visualization in Parkour
Focus and Visualization
So, you’re beginning to get to grips with the physical aspects of parkour: Your body is becoming stronger, fitter, more flexible – better conditioned all round. The basic movements are starting to click maybe, your balance is coming along nicely and the fluidity is at last emerging from beneath the awkwardness you thought you would never be free of. Nice.
But where’s your head at during all this? Are your training sessions a little incoherent and formless? Do you find your mind wandering for long periods when practising alone or even during jams? If so, you will probably find that your learning curve begins to flatten out and that you soon reach what is known as a ‘plateau’, a level of ability beyond which you find it very difficult to progress. The difference between most practitioners of any discipline and the few who attain real mastery is to be found in their ability to maintain good concentration throughout training; in other words, to focus.
Every sport requires concentration and the ability to be free from the effects of distraction. The development of athletic skill demands unbroken attention to the environment, to the objects and other people involved, and to kinaesthetic sensations. It is well known that success at the very highest levels of competitive sport is directly correlated with constant presence in the moment. Indeed, concentration can produce a state of mind graced by extraordinary clarity and focus.
Sportspeople usually describe this state as ‘being in the zone’, a condition beyond their normal functioning wherein they achieve a harmony of body and mind and an overall physical synergy they are not typically able to access.
And this state of mind, this ability to focus all of your attention on what you are doing, is no less vital in the practise of parkour.
The difference between most practitioners of any discipline and the few who attain real mastery is to be found in their ability to maintain good concentration throughout training.
For one thing, it’s important for safety reasons: a lapse in concentration during parkour practise can have significant consequences. Keep your mind on your actions; focus on the variables involved within any given manoeuvre and you reduce your chances of being caught out. Longevity is what we are looking for – train with focus and you’ll be in the game for as long as you want.
But beyond the safe practise aspect, focus is the key to true advancement in the art; to stepping away from that plateau and making some real leaps up the mountain. Learning to concentrate your mental energy alongside your physical attributes, and to do this regularly, will bring not only a fuller understanding of the intricacy and nuance of your motion but also genuine, ongoing progression.
Concentrate on your terrain, concentrate on your body and your own levels of fatigue, concentrate on your motion. In time and with practise these will blend together to improve your overall attention capacity and it will take less and less time to bring your attention to bear when you require it. The result: your training will be much more effective, giving you a higher return for your efforts. As the old adage goes; work hard, yes, but work smart too.
Visualization: The Master’s Method
Perhaps the most powerful tool of concentration is what is known as active visualization. It is important to realise that this is far removed from mere everyday reverie, daydreaming or reflections upon past events. Visualization is the actual mental rehearsal of an action before, and sometimes during, the action itself. You imagine yourself carrying out your intended action or movement in as much details as possible and with perfect success. You see exactly how you want the movement to go, and let that imagery sink into your body and mind.
Sports psychologist Richard Suinn wrote that this imagery ‘is more than visual. It is also tactile, auditory, emotional, and muscular… without fail, athletes feel their muscles in action as they rehearse their sport’. Imagery of this kind catalyzes the reintegration of physical performance. It is a well-controlled copy of experience, a sort of body-thinking similar to the powerful visions of dreaming.
Numerous scientific studies of sports have revealed that concentration during training upon the particular skill or body part being trained measurably increases the effectiveness of the exercise. Schwarzenegger once said that ‘a pump when I picture the muscle I want is worth ten with my mind drifting’. It was also found that a group of test individuals who, for one month, were only allowed to visualize exercising a specific muscle group actually showed an improvement in the density and strength of those muscles.
Here’s how it works: Essentially, as your brain conceives of an act, it generates impulses that prompt neurons to ‘perform’ the movement being imagined by transmitting those impulses from the brain to the muscles. As a result our neuromuscular efficiency increases as the blueprint for our chosen action is laid down over and over within our body. Incredibly, we are able to programme our bodies’ actions simply by visualizing the actions we want.
The same phenomenon was demonstrated when a group of basketball players at the University of Chicago were told not to shoot hoops for a month, but instead to visualize themselves sinking baskets for a certain amount of time each day: without touching a ball for a month, they showed almost the same performance increase (23%) as the group who practised as normal for an equal period of time (24%). The control group, who were instructed to not give any attention to basketball for that month exhibited no improvement, and many of them worsened in ability.
Hundreds of such studies have been carried out and the overriding conclusion is that our very physiology is directly affected by our thoughts. However, this is not to say you shouldn’t practise! What is does say is that in order to get the best results from your training, it is vital you align your mental focus with your physical commitment. When the two combine, there isn’t a lot you can’t achieve.