Life Philosophy
The PKGen Debrief Interview (Uncut version)
3rd September 2014
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The Parkour Generations (PKGen) coaching group run a weekly interview on their website, in which they ask different parkour-people some questions. They’ve been doing it for a few years now and have worked their way down the list to eventually get to me. The version on their website was the shortened version, but here’s the uncut version with everything I wanted to write.

Name:

Alex May

(at this point I want to warn you, and apologise slightly, that this is a long one. I have a lot of thoughts on these things, and I feel that sharing them is more interesting than simply answering the questions in a straightforward way. That’s just how I write at the moment). 

Age:

21 

Location:

Well as I write this I’m at my parents’ house in Solihull (Birmingham area), but I’ll spend the next year at Oxford for my final year of University. But to complicate things slight more, I spent the last year in Germany (Bonn) studying there, which I feel I should add because that’s where the most recent part of my ‘parkour journey’ has been. 

Parkour group/team:

I’ve been ‘freelance’ for the last year or so, but I’ll be back with the Oxford Parkour community soon. Not a group or team though, just a community, we’re in the process of planning what the next term is going to look like and having a bit more structure in the group. That’s at www.oxfordparkour.co.uk.

I think I’ll namedrop my own website in here too: www.alexmay.co.uk is currently where I blog (sometimes about parkour but mostly generally with a mixture of thoughts I have), as I feel a bit more ‘freelance’ than just the Oxford group and have much more there than on the Oxford Website for parkour-related things.

How long have you been a Traceur?

I think I went to my first ever session, run by a coach in the Birmingham (Brendan Riley, EMP Parkour) area, in 2010. But I stopped being a traceur for half a year when I first went to university. That puts me at around 3½ – 4 years, I think. I don’t think of myself specifically as a ‘traceur’, though I would say I do parkour and/or Art du Deplacement, and probably ‘freerunning’ too.

But I can’t answer that question without including the following in my answer: I don’t like the question of “How long have you been training?”. It doesn’t define us and it isn’t particularly helpful either. It’s a quick shortcut and allows us to size someone up when we first meet them, and I ask people that too in introductions, but I don’t like it. Before I did parkour I had done three or four years of sprint training, as well as played basketball, rugby and done a bit of martial arts, so when I started I already had lots of power in my legs. So if you look at me training after half a year, suddenly it looks like I’ve progressed really quickly. Somebody else might have started parkour being less physically fit (I know some people who are ‘old’ or weak or obese who have started parkour) and might only reach the same ‘standard’ after two years. On the flipside, for the last year I only ‘trained’ (we’ll come to that later!) once a week. Somebody else might have done a really intense year or two of training (a la Blake Evitt, who got some funding to travel round the world doing parkour and did exactly this – http://making-the-jump.blogspot.com/, I’ve only actually met him once) and be much better than me.

Part of asking this question is sometimes a way of gauging how good somebody is. I’m not saying that it’s a bad question to ask and we shouldn’t ask it, but I do feel that these things need pointing out. It’s part of the same attitude where people feel down when they look at somebody who has been training for a shorter period of time but is physically ‘better’; parkour is a personal journey entirely about your own achievement, nothing to do with anybody else, so why does this matter.

What does matter is spirit and mindset.

What movements are you currently working on and what percentage of your training is conditioning?

I’ve merged these two questions because the answer comes together: I’m currently at a transition period in my life, having recently got back from the year abroad and soon moving back to Oxford, and it seems like my parkour is in the same transition phase. I still haven’t unpacked my bags [at time of writing I hadn’t, but now I have!] and haven’t settled into a routine or what I’m doing yet, just taking each day as it comes. I currently don’t have any movements I’m working on for this same reason: I’m in a transition period and need to reassess my parkour and what I’m doing with it. So in some ways, this ‘interview’ comes at a bad time; in other ways, it’s good for me to have this to use to reflect on, and that’ll probably come through in the way I’m rambling so much here… I guess it is called a debrief, so I’ll treat it as me debriefing myself from that part of my journey!

My year in Germany was one period of my parkour journey, as I started out travelling and testing myself and exploring with what I could do and seeking more to discover and learn (chronicled a bit in my blog, where I visit Venice and Vienna and later Paris for some parkour), and then assessing what I had and what I wanted to improve. I wanted to get stronger and fitter (which I didn’t manage as intended, turns out there’s lots of other stuff to get involved in too and I picked up a couple of minor injuries which held me back from doing this too much). The movements I focussed on over the last year were muscle-up (wanting to be able to do a clean one), kong-to-something (precision or cat), and arm jumps.

But parkour isn’t just about the movements, so I’m going to go off-piste with this question a bit. Much more important for me have been the mental control that I’ve improved (mostly with height, but also with bigger jumps or new things) and the creativity that I’ve learned in different movements and ways of seeing things, which I think has come a lot from having trained with many different groups and people while being away.

What percentage of my training is conditioning? Short answer is the same, that I’m not in a routine and can’t answer. Medium answer is that it depends what ‘phase’ of parkour training I’m in and what I’m working towards, but I guess around 20-30% on average. Long, and most important, answer: what is training and what is conditioning? I ask this seriously, not to be pedantic. All movements are also conditioning. So do we mean ‘conditioning’ is when we’re doing something that isn’t ‘parkour’?

But what is parkour anyway, is doing press-ups to make us stronger part of parkour, or is it just preparation for parkour? Is parkour the movement we do, or is it actually a training system, or a life philosophy? If I’m learning a new style of movement, something creative, is that conditioning? Is conditioning just for the body, or also for the mind? That’s all in the abstract.

Last year, as part of the travel and exploration, I tried out a few new things, all of them as a mixture of cross-discipline training for parkour and just interest/fun/self-improvement (or maybe, if parkour is a life philosophy or a system, maybe these are part of my parkour too?). I went to some capoeira sessions, which helped work on fluidity and learning a new style of moving: does that count as conditioning for the way I see things, or because it gave me physical benefits in making my legs stronger and more flexible and working balance and coordination? I went to some yoga, which has given me more mental control and, more importantly, helped me be much more aware of breathing and how to do that while the body is doing other things. Finally, I got involve in theatre, auditioning for, and being in, a play, having never done any acting before. This was a huge mental challenge regarding fear, and as I later discovered, it also gave me much more physical control and awareness (especially being completely out of my comfort zone and learning new skills), which I’m sure will help in being aware of different body parts while moving. Maybe even being in a different country and speaking a different language, pushing myself out of my comfort zone, is also mental conditioning…

So answer that for yourself: how much of what I did was conditioning?

What is conditioning, and what is parkour? Like in philosophy, I don’t think that the answers themselves are what’s important: it isn’t about finding the best definition of parkour and seeing who is right and who is wrong, but in having the discussion or reflection we can see what is important and what isn’t important and question our reasons and motives. All of the things I did were good to do whether they were defined as parkour or not, so maybe the question is more, “is this thing something which will be beneficial for me to do”…

Favourite strength and conditioning exercise?

I’ll keep it more concise now. I’ll give a few favourites, because it depends what you want (your favourite food might be chocolate, but if you had to pick one food to eat for the rest of your life it probably wouldn’t be that!).

  • Favourite individual exercise for myself at the moment: muscle-ups for working strength/power and upper body joints. 
  • Favourite for coaching: backward quadrupedie going up stairs. 
  • Favourite ‘exercise’: route/circuit work, where the route has different movements and is repeated many times, so it works fitness well, can be interval training or endurance training depending how you do it, and you can practice having to do a movement or concentrate when you’re tired. 

Who or what is your biggest influence?

No single answer, apart from maybe I feel that I owe it both to myself and to anybody without the opportunities I have to make the most of my life, and that includes in parkour in being the best I can be (more on this here).

Countless people, mostly parkour-people but also some not, have influenced me in a number of ways, whether it is showing me a new move, a new way to think or train, or just reminding me of something else.

What were your reasons for starting training / what are your reasons for training now?

Can’t remember why I started. I knew about some of the philosophy behind it, having seen Jump London, and wanted to do it for a couple of years before I got round to actually going along to my first session. I had just recovered from back surgery (full recovery, stronger than before, so no worries), and suddenly had a newfound gratitude for having a functioning body, and I had thought it would be cool to do parkour for a couple of years and this pushed me into actually starting.

I just came to answer ‘why do I train’, but I’m not sure I like the word ‘training’. In some languages, it’s ‘playing’. For me at the moment, it’s more just ‘doing’, as it’s less structured. (I know most people don’t bother so much about the words, but I think words are actually quite important in the way they structure the way we think about things.)

Children explore their environment, mountaineers climb mountains just because they’re there, people play games because they’re fun. There are many different aspects to ‘parkour’, and I guess depending on what I feel like doing the reason is different. As a training system, I really like the ‘spirit’, mental aspect, of challenging yourself and knowing yourself better and fighting fear and other inner demons. As a way of moving, I like how all-rounded it is: strength, endurance, flexibility, creativity, mental challenges, coordination, joint strengthening, muscle building, fat burning, and more, all in the same place; much less one-dimensional than running or lifting weights or dancing. I like exploring the environment, doing things just because they’re there. Sometimes the movement is just fun, like learning spinny things on rails. Plus the functional aspect and being more prepared for life, whether it’s just walking round (when a gate got locked at college I could climb the wall and save myself three minutes) or for an emergency situation.

But it’s now become quite normal and integrated into my life, like my life philosophy (horrible pretentious sounding phrase) and the philosophy I find in parkour just match up.

With the different aspects I train for different reasons. Sometimes I’m waiting at a bus stop. Sometimes I feel stressed or in a bad mood, and want to do something to reconnect with the deeper version of me – I found tree climbing quite good, because the thought that you will likely die if you fall sobers up whatever it is that’s affecting me. If I want to be stronger and fitter, which I do, I ‘condition’ more. If I want to know myself better, I challenge myself and learn things, because learning things is a good enough experience that it should be done for its own sake even without any benefits.

Current favourite training location and why?

No answer. For a sport that is claimed to be about adapting to the environment, it’s strange that we pay so much attention to the locations, I don’t think we realise how much they limit us.

But I think this answer is more that I don’t have a favourite location than that I disagree with the concept on a more philosophical level, I train at parkour spots often like the rest of us.

Item in your bag you couldn’t go training without?

(Again, this word ‘training’!) If this question is meant seriously, there isn’t one. If there’s something we can’t go without then we are dependent on it, and that’s a weakness. But there’s nothing I actually need either. Water is useful, but you can go without it. Sometimes I’ll end up doing some parkour when I’m just walking home from somewhere with whatever happens to be in my bag – and this is what I mean when I question the word ‘training’. I don’t always “go training”, sometimes I just move when I feel like it.

If I’m going for a big, planned session then there’s all manner of stuff you can take to be more prepared (lacrosse ball, tape, hat, clothing, penknife, etc), but none of this is necessary, just useful.

Actually, the thing I ‘need’ the most is my contact lenses. Having been wearing them for years, if I go training in glasses, then being long-sighted (can’t see close things) it suddenly ends up that the ground below the lens is out of focus and I’m not used to moving my entire head to be able to see the ground, so I end up misjudging all the landings.

How do you approach breaking a jump?

Our mental state and mood varies a lot, and jumps are always different. There are many different approaches, some of which work in certain situations and some of which don’t. I almost always start by rationally thinking about every aspect of it to see if it’s safe at that moment in time. If not, I tend not to do it, unless there’s a pressing reason. Sometimes I find that I just have to do it, and lean forward to the point of no return and let my instinct deal with it. Sometimes I find that taking my time to get comfortable helps. Sometimes there are smaller similar jumps I can do as a warm-up, but sometimes I feel that this challenge is about breaking the jump without using that to help (because it isn’t always about completing the physical jump but about beating the mental challenge, or ourselves). Sometimes I walk away, then come back and make myself do it without thinking. Sometimes I ready myself and then count down from three, which I’ve used for awhile such that I have the control not to back out often. Sometimes I ask somebody else to do the jump before I do it (again, depending on the challenge: if I want to prove to myself I can do it to gain confidence, this helps, but sometimes that ruins the challenge). Sometimes I practice different failure modes of the jump (or bails, as some people call them, but I don’t agree with that phrase linguistically) and intentionally do it short, or just jump down to test the landing if I fall. Sometimes I get somebody to shove me really hard to give me an adrenalin boost. Sometimes I imagine I’m in a situation where I have to do the jump and work myself up to the necessity.

That’s me, leaned forward just enough that there’s no escape and that I’m suddenly in the focus zone.

Where do you see Parkour in 10 years time?

What’s parkour again? There’s loads of different possibilities and I don’t think I know enough about culture and society to know where it will end up.

The physical aspect of it will probably be quite prevalent. We’ve already seen “parkour” as a staple of film chase scenes (but that’s just a stunt chase scene, not really the discipline we describe as parkour), and there are many schools which now include “parkour” (sometimes ‘properly’ as we know it, sometimes not) in their P.E. lessons (or at least, in Germany it was common). So in that sense, I think it will become more mainstream and known, I don’t think it’s dying out anywhere. This has loads of benefits: if people start doing parkour instead of going to the gym or going jogging, they’ll (generally) be better off for it. ‘Parkour’ exercise classes will become quite common, as the number of coaches grow, and I think we’ll be seeing more things like the Parkour Dance company, who ran some ‘parkour’ style lessons for elderly people (which I love!) or Access Parkour, running sessions to get middle aged people back in touch with the fundamentals of moving (they also run the usual outdoor/indoor parkour sessions as we know them, but the particular ‘access class’ is different). Kids classes, too; even though kids naturally move in their environment which is the same as ‘parkour’ anyway, society and adults seem to be conditioning this out of them and making it dangerous, so maybe ‘parkour’ classes for kids can help to reverse this.

There’s a negative side to this too. People who mess around and call it parkour. The parkour energy drink. I even saw an urban bike race (which sounded cool) called ‘parkour ride’ (not cool). So the word, name, loses meaning and reference and gets diluted.

For the holistic discipline, essence, spirit and all, I’m not sure where it will be in ten years. Obscured, certainly. With the internet and media and human focus on sensation, it’s always the stunts, jumps, and flips that people see. It’s hard enough now for younger people to get into parkour, as all they see are people doing things in videos, and so many think that that’s what parkour is. Ten years ago, all we had were people doing the ‘parkour’ discipline without any of this obstruction, so people could get straight to it, but now they have to dig through all of the sponsorship, the ego, the stunts and the showing off to find it. And they probably won’t even know that there is more to it – the true practitioners* tend not to shout as much about it. People who should be doing parkour, who might have been interested in the past, might be put off by this obstruction and not realise the treasure that lies underneath.

*To clarify, I’ve nothing against people who practise in a different way to I like. I love it too. Movement is great. I certainly don’t dislike people who jump on things in a different way or for a different reason than I do; it’s just a different thing. Like skating, or dancing, or singing. It’s great, just different to parkour. 

But hopefully, the number of people practising the better way will still be growing. After all, a number of years ago, there was just one guy inspired by his father. A group gathered around him, and it dispersed since then. There are certainly more of us now than there used to be. Lets just hope that it keeps growing – Blane/Chris says that he has hope for the future, and I put faith in that.

What will the discipline itself be in ten years? I think any idea, philosophy, or movement is defined by the cultural (and personal) setting that it’s in. David Belle did his ‘parkour’ in a way that is at odds with lots of what we call ‘parkour’, and that’s changed, developed, evolved and become less pure. Not that that is bad. Parkour done by somebody who lives alone in a forest is different to parkour done by somebody in a city, and in London the attitude is different to the attitude in Iran. What I mean by this is that the parkour most of us know has some element of subversing social norms about public spaces and using things in a way they aren’t designed to be used. For the women in Iran who do parkour, I wonder if there’s a huge feminist element in doing what they do, which goes against the cultural norms/pressures of what women are meant to do – I don’t know, I don’t know enough about their situation. Even in England (not shutting out Scotland/Wales/N. Ireland, I just can’t speak for them) I feel like there’s a bit of a radical side to some women doing parkour: men are meant to be strong and do cool stunts, women are just meant to stand there and look pretty (this isn’t my view, I’m parodying the different cultural expectations that genders have).

In ten years, will we be even more obese? Will even caring about being healthy or exercising become more abnormal than it currently is (seriously, I’ve seen some guidelines recommend three times twenty minutes a week, where moderate walking is sufficient to qualify for ‘exercise)? Will the pressures on men to have certain aesthetics increase (it seems that ‘going to the gym to get hench’ is more common than it used to be)? Will it become illegal to do parkour, and will it suddenly become a subversive, underground, even terrorist movement? (I know that one sounds a bit far, but the recent possibility of legislation able to designate certain areas as prohibiting certain activities, such as no alcohol zones, and the prevalence of ‘no ball games’ and ‘no skateboarding’ signs might end up with parkour becoming less lawful than currently; and if protesting for more equality and democracy gets you qualified as a ‘domestic extremist’ (very similar word to ‘terrorist) and possessing a map is sufficient to qualify as a terrorism offence (in being ‘information useful for terrorism’), suddenly I sound a bit less like a crazy person).

One piece of advice to Traceurs just starting out:

Read all of the other debrief interviews, as well as loads of information about parkour, to find out what all of their advice would be, because that’ll be more than what I can say with one piece of advice.

The knowledge is out there and parkour is, for the large part, a journey of self-discovery. You’ve got to be responsible for arming yourself with knowledge and not relying on other people telling you things, as you might not be around other parkour-people or they might be wrong.

Good luck and thanks!

If you’re still reading at this point, congratulations, and the same to you too! Feel free to get in touch with any thoughts you might have about all of the stuff I wrote, either comment here or on facebook or whatever (email Alex@ this website if you want).