“Jumping and running across rooftops in the high-flying sport of parkour…”
“The sport of parkour, in which teenagers run and somersault across roofs…”
“The group of fit, athletic students are practitioners of the extreme sport of parkour…”
Parkour is not a sport.
“But Alan,” you may say, “It doesn’t matter if parkour is called a sport! That’s just nitpicking points of semantics!”
It does matter. Ideas have power. Words give form to ideas. The way an idea is framed and presented is a critical part of how it’s received by those who hear it. The way we reference parkour is no different. Terminology matters.
Take skateboarding and martial arts. Consider how differently the practitioners of each are regarded. Skateboarders are often seen as irresponsible, reckless rebels who need to grow up. Martial artists are respected, and not just because they can beat the tar out of anyone who doesn’t respect them. They are respected and admired because what they practice goes beyond a hobby, beyond a sport.
Parkour has a lot in common with both skateboarding and martial arts. Parkour is creative movement, like skateboarding; fast, efficient movements, like martial arts; (seemingly) crazy stunts like skateboarding; constant training like martial arts. To the inexperienced eye, it seems that parkour could be a sport, as it has so much in common with skateboarding. I disagree. The differences between the two outweigh the similarities. Let’s explore this topic further.
Why Parkour Is Not A Sport
An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.
Now that we have a concrete definition of a sport, we’re going to look deeper into why and how parkour doesn’t fit that definition.
One of parkour’s core tenets is that it is non-competitive. It’s never been competitive; when competition is added, parkour becomes nothing more than a glorified form of street acrobatics.
But what about the Red Bull Art of Motion? MTV’s Ultimate Parkour Challenge? Barclaycard Freerun Championships? Those are competitions, competitions in which many well-respected traceurs participate. They do – because everyone needs to pay the bills. Even if they don’t win, every athlete who takes part in a prominent parkour/freerunning competition is guaranteed to get exposure. For the performing artist, exposure equals jobs equals money. Parkour as a whole is not competitive. It’s one of the most significant differences between parkour and a sport like football or basketball.
No Showing Off
Parkour is all about training for the sake of self-improvement. Showing off is strongly discouraged. If you’re demonstrating parkour for the purpose of spreading it, then that’s okay, even positive. But randomly tossing a huge trick for the sole purpose of impressing those around you – just no. It’s not in the spirit of parkour at all.
No Regulating Bodies
Parkour has no government. No equivalent of the NFL or NBA exists for parkour. Oh sure, some organizations try to claim authority, but none of them can actually enforce any laws or ordinances they make. Even David Belle, the founder of parkour, doesn’t try to lead except by example, let alone lay down any rules. Besides, how would you regulate something that can exist anywhere and can be done by anyone? It would be like trying regulate push-ups. It can’t happen. Even assuming this imaginary parkour government could somehow enforce its regulations, that would absolutely destroy parkour. How can you find your own path if someone is blocking it?
What is Parkour?
An activity or experience that provides mental or physical training; a system of rules of conduct.
Parkour is a discipline.
Let’s go explore the definition of a discipline and see if parkour fits in it.
No one who’s ever seen a halfway-skilled traceur or a decent video will deny that parkour trains the practitioner’s body. That is absolutely undoubted. One of the three main parts of the definition is already cleanly in the bag.
Very few people who have not been practicing parkour for a few months truly understand the massive impact parkour has on your mindset. To really understand that, at least some firsthand experience is needed.
These are just a few of the scary things parkour makes you confront:
- Flips: Your body doesn’t want to even be moving when you can’t see the ground, let alone when you’re upside-down and rotating in two dimensions and moving downwards in the other… and you can’t see the ground. It’s terrifying at first.
- Large precisions: Will you stick the landing or will you fall?
- Vaults: Will you clip your feet? Misplace your hands? Or maybe your hands will slip, something no one can account for.
- Tricks: Will you spin around fast enough? Or will you stall and crash halfway through? Do you have enough power to get enough airtime to land this?
- Drops: Mess up a large drop and you could literally die. Unlikely, but within the realm of probability.
When you get to a certain level of skill, other things just stop being scary. The nervousness caused by the prospect of talking to an attractive member of the opposite sex is small potatoes compared to the fear caused by the prospect of jumping a 10+ foot gap.
Confidence and Control
Parkour develops total body awareness. Not just spatial awareness – where your limbs are in space – but a complete knowledge of both your body and mind’s capabilities.
That is an absolutely key element of confidence in the rest of your life. If you have a thorough knowledge of yourself, so many things become much less scary. Insecurity about your body, shyness, indecision, fear of other people… It all stops having a big effect on your life. The confidence from parkour will permeate your life. It would be easy to become stuck-up or conceited, but the code of conduct discussed below will keep you from falling into that trap.
Rules of Conduct
Traceurs follow an unspoken code of conduct, which reads something like this:
- If asked to leave an area, do so promptly.
- Ask permission before training on private property – and respect the owner’s decision.
- Respect those who are more skilled; don’t be envious.
- Help those who are less skilled; never mock.
Unspoken and unofficial they may be, but the “rules of parkour” are very different from those of a competitive sport. Competition leads to pride or shame, depending on your score. Parkour leads to respect for others and humility.
Respect comes from constantly helping and being helped by the community. You can’t ask for help in a snarky tone, and you won’t accept help if it’s given in a nasty spirit. Once you’ve started treating some people respectfully, it’s an easy jump to treating everyone with the same respect.
Humility comes from self-knowledge. Parkour forces you to know your limits; if you can’t make the jump, then you know it. There’s no maybe about it; you can’t. At some point in the future, yes, you’ll probably be able to; right now, you cannot. Your body may be able do incredible things – but that just makes you realize just how much more you can improve. You become self-knowledgable enough that you can see yourself for precisely who and what you are. This truly does lead to humility. Show me someone who claims to be perfectly content with who he is as a person and I’ll show you either a liar or an arrogant ass. Show me someone who knows exactly who he is, what his flaws are, and how he’s going to get better, and I’ll show you a humble fellow.
Parkour Is A Discipline
Parkour matches the definition of a discipline much more closely than that of a sport. There’s no competition, no showing off, and no government. There is, however, intensive training – physical and mental – and a code of conduct. The differences between parkour and sports are even more significant than the similarities between parkour and a discipline.
Why This Matters
This seemingly nit-picky wording issue really does matter. Words define ideas. The choice of words affects the way those ideas are perceived. The word “sport” has certain connotations. So does “discipline.” All of those connotations are subconsciously brought to your mind the second you hear that word. Returning to my original analogy, which has the better reputation, skateboarding or martial arts? Which would you rather your child participate in?
The discipline, not the sport.
Which one is banned in many places? Which one is looked down on? Which one is seen as reckless?
The sport, not the discipline.
When I was doing research to find the links at the very top of this article, I came across several news pieces that did not refer to parkour as a sport. Almost universally, they were favorable. Know why? The authors talked to serious traceurs, who informed them of that which otherwise would have taken months to discover on their own: parkour is not an extreme sport.
It is a discipline.