Thursday, May 7, 2009
Having learnt early on the importance of control and deliberate movement, I have become more aware that this way of practising isn’t always beneficial to me. I feel like my desire to have every move and the conditions in which I practice under my control, has now become a limiting factor in my training. By that I mean having a choice over how, where and when I move has meant that my progression up until now has followed a path that in some ways has been the one of least resistance. Parkour is (arguably) a free discipline that allows practitioners to determine exactly how and what they practice. So ironically, when you are the one who determines your own way, it is easy to be unknowingly held back by your own subconscious ways of viewing things, and the patterns of behaviour that you may be living out and naturally gravitating towards.
When you initially start out it can be the case that everything feels unnatural and awkward, but soon we find something that we like and then spend more of our time working on it. Thus, using our likes and our strengths as a guide to what we practice creates or reinforces a way of being, a way of thinking, and a way of moving that is a reflection of those strengths, but also in a more subtle way a reflection of our fears and our weaknesses. And in this way our training supports our old beliefs, both positive and negative, instead of creating new ones.
For me the problem is that I have felt I have been too controlling, and fooling myself that I am simply ‘going my own way’, and that perhaps I wasn’t meant to do certain things, when deep down I think it has just been part of an elaborate excuse to avoid facing my real fears. This same idea can be applied to anything, and now that I look at it I can see other areas in life where I have made those excuses before.
Part of my new approach to training has been to use my fears as a blueprint for what I should be practicing, rather than what I should avoid. I have spoken about this before as being a potential method of training, but it has only recently begun to be set in motion as the primary driving force behind what I do.
Again I am unsure of what sparked this revolution inside me, but this week alone I have done things that at one point I believed would take me months to build up the courage to overcome.
I started out by climbing a tree that didn’t have any branches low enough to reach either from standing or jumping, and then climbed progressively higher until I reached the top. In my mind I was clear that by frequently challenging and facing my fear of heights, it would over time become the norm for me to be in such places, without worry. In a similar way I knew that if I climbed to a height at which I became scared, but then stopped and waited around for long enough, my fear would subside and enable me to go higher. Using this technique, and given enough time I could potentially climb to any height. The only limiting factor being my desire to confront those fears head on, time after time.
A thought that I had in relation to all this was the way that if you are travelling along a motorway at high speed without interruption, you soon become accustomed to the speed and it no longer feels fast until you speed up again. The point being that whatever you view as being normal is whatever you experience and expect to experience on a frequent enough basis. It sounds so simple that I may be a fool for writing it, but this is the idea that lead me to the belief and solution for freeing myself from my fear of heights, or any fear for that matter.
Up until this point I had it set in my mind that some people were naturally afraid of such things, and that some people weren’t, and I was just someone who was unlucky enough to be lumbered with these sometimes irrational thoughts. Now I see it as being something within my control, only if I choose to actively do something about it, instead of resigning myself to the idea that it cannot be changed.
I had spotted a branch that reached out and across the roof of some garages, and had thought about hanging from it when I first made it up into the tree, but was too afraid to even test it. After climbing down from the very top I had committed myself to making it along the branch, and although I wasn’t so nervous I was still stuck with my familiar worries, unable to take the first steps to grabbing the branch where it joined with the trunk of the tree. Ignoring or going against my fears, I eventually had both hands wrapped unnecessarily tight around the branch and gently lowered my legs to a hanging position in mid air. Immediately I felt a rush of relief as I was now aware of how irrational my fears had been, and how in fact there wasn’t anything worth worrying over.
I climbed across to the garages and then down to the ground again, the first part of my mission was over. Knowing that balancing at lower heights would seem less of a worry after being where I was, I had planned in advance to go straight to the support bar on a swing set in the children’s playground next to where I was. Once again, feeling uneasy and unsure of myself in this new situation I decided for the time being I would be ok with just crouching on the flat bar which was about 5cm wide. Shortly after I found the courage to stand up, and then upon taking my first step I said to myself that if I can step with one foot, then I can step with the other, creating a snowball of confidence. In the space of a few minutes I went from literally shaking with fear just from being crouched at that height, to walking confidently back and forth. I repeated the route a few times to solidify in my mind the feeling of confidence and the idea that it is something I am more than capable of doing.
The next day at the end of my session I walked the same route with double the repetitions this time, noticing how quickly I could walk without having to rely on looking down at my feet.
The following day that I trained, I set my sights back on what I had already planned to confront, but had ignored after an initial promising period. Without much commitment to the task I had at some stage given myself the challenge of being able to walk across the top bar of the football goal by June. I had spend a few occasions just sitting on the bar getting used to the height, once for an hour, slowly traversing from one side and back, stopping to let go with my hands and hold them above my head, in front and behind me. This time I had to push further though, knowing that I had already walked across the swings which were at a similar height, but this pole was rounded and progressively unstable towards the centre. I first took a few unsteady steps using my hands and feet, and then slowly let go and stood up halfway, and back down again. Knowing what it felt like to half stand up gave me the confidence to go further and stand completely, and eventually begin walking.
I got to a point where my confidence lacked towards the centre of the bar, and I allowed myself to fall to a waist position instead of trying to regain balance. The reason for this was that I was worried if I tried to balance on one leg leaning far out to either side I would slip off. Recognising this as just a fear and not necessarily the truth, on my next try I refused to let myself fall and did everything I could to stay up. I didn’t slip, and my confidence in my footing meant that I was more stable and therefore actually less likely to slip, and so I made it all the way to the other side. I did fall off once during that session, and to my surprise I landed safely without any worry about the fall, which was interesting considering the height was not something I would normally jump off, let alone want to fall from.
The next day I went back and repeated the route a further 5 times, gaining confidence all the time.
The most interesting thing for me was discovering that if I choose to listen to the worries I go nowhere, but if I go against them I expose them as being unnecessary and blown out of proportion. Of course there is a possibility that I could fall, but this is an obvious fact and not something worth thinking about while I’m in the middle of trying to do the exact opposite. So I have been introducing more positive thoughts and affirmations in these situations, and it is like whenever I accomplish something new I see how I am split into two different people. The voices of fear, and the actions of confidence that defy them. I am now choosing to walk in a new direction.
The good thing about overcoming and challenging these fears is that when my confidence goes up a notch I don’t have to spend hours, days or even months repeating the movement, as the actual ability or skill is already there, hidden beneath the surface of doubt.
I have committed myself to training in this way and to do things that scare me on a regular basis as part of my basic practice.
Yesterday I went back to a set of rails that I have been on a number of times before, and noticed how much my perspective and confidence on them had changed due to my training this week. It was as if they actually appeared lower, and walking on them was immediately more similar to walking on the ground, without having to spend time adjusting to them first.
I then went to a higher rail which I had never been on before as I always considered it too high, and walked easily up and down it with my new found confidence. But knowing that what I was doing wasn’t really scary, and therefore too easy, I chose a tree and began to climb with my bag still on my back. Using the same start stop method as before, I got to a point where I stayed for some time before coming down, feeling cold, but that I had sufficiently pushed myself to go further again.
Another method I have briefly touched upon in my previous training has been to choose a route and then just run it as quickly as possible using whatever methods come to me as I go along, with the emphasis on always attempting to be fast, instead of focusing on technique. The reason for this is that when I sprint or try to move as fast as I can, I get a rush of adrenaline even before I begin to move, brought on by my own anticipation. This adrenaline has already proved to be a barrier when battling fear of heights, but I also have to face it when I attempt to release control and move faster than normal. I have described this way of training as being for me possibly one of the most realistic when it comes to emulating things like real life escape or reach situations, as the effects of adrenaline are the same whether the danger is real or not.
Building upon this idea is a game I conceived some time ago, but had only ever tried on my own until training with other people this year. The idea is simple; choose a route involving as many or as few obstacles as you want, and then choose a starting and finishing point. The player has to lie down either on their front or back with arms at their sides in a relaxed position and eyes closed. The player should then attempt to relax as much as possible and think of something other than the game they are playing, and also to try and forget their surroundings altogether. Someone will then shout or clap loudly as a signal to go, at which point the player gets up and traces the route as fast as possible.
Having someone else decide when you go means that either you will be nervous with anticipation waiting for the signal that could come at any time, in seconds or possibly minutes, or you will be relaxed and then have to spring immediately into action, having to move instinctually without time to assess or sum up your movements and surroundings as usual.
Having played this game I can say that it is unlike anything I have practiced before, as you must place a certain amount of control in the hands of someone else, and get used to the feeling of just moving on command, from a state of relaxation to a brief but intense period of action. It feels like the very opposite of what I have been doing for years, and it seems to be a good way of seeing how well you can really perform when called upon. Learning to act and react quickly without the room for analysing or overanalysing the situation. Introducing a signal to change direction is just one of the ways the game can be adapted and changed to suit these principles.
Visual Motor Rehearsal
Sometimes when I imagine doing a certain movement, mostly with climbing, I physically feel sensations in my hands as if I were actually climbing. It’s usually when I see a video of someone climbing something really high or doing something that makes me nervous just by watching, and then I imagine myself in the same situation. This brings to mind the experiments in which athletes visualised exercises in their minds and the results showed that their bodies reacted as if the exercises were real.
If you think that a message has to travel from your brain to your muscles to make them work whenever you want to move, then something similar must happen if you simply imagine moving. I don’t think the brain sees much, if any difference between a thought of wanting to actually move, and just imagining moving.
It’s as if anytime we do anything, even just walking for example, we are on some level imagining ourselves taking each step immediately beforehand, but in the case of visualisation, the period between the imagining and the moving is usually a lot longer.
To be honest I haven’t done much visualisation in training, at least not of the positive kind, as it’s the thoughts of things going wrong that have played the biggest role when it comes to avoiding things. Now if we look at the other side of this, and begin to practice using our imagination as a powerful tool I think it is possible to strengthen your imagination and become more adept at using it, and in turn accomplish things that you had previously thought impossible, both physically and mentally.
I wonder whether I have ever been able to do anything that I wasn’t capable of imagining first.
I remember that when I spent more time dancing and trying to come up with new moves, I would take an idea for something and then go about seeing if it was possible by trying over and over, instead of trying to rationally analyse the physics of it for example. I think in this way my focus was more on the imagine in my mind of what I wanted to do, rather than on any thought about not being strong or capable enough in any way. I believe that if you maintain your focus on something you want instead of the obstacles in your way, you will only ever find a way of making it possible.
You have to prove your negative thoughts wrong, by acting in opposition to them.
I’ve seen people say that they can’t do such and such, without repeatedly trying, and sometimes without ever having tried at all! In those situations it is very clear how having a positive mindset can make a huge difference to what can be achieved. I have been one of those people who condemn themselves to failure before beginning, and now I feel I have come to a turning point where I can’t allow it to continue any longer, as my desire to progress is greater than my desire to stay in my comfort zone.
Einstein said: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
Training with my rings has brought a lot of attention from other people in the park where I have been using them over the past couple of months, more noticeably from young teenagers and small children as they have been less reluctant to approach and talk to me. For me it’s been a great experience being able to share advice and play with groups of people who aren’t afraid to express their interest and get involved.
What struck me was the lack of basic strength and coordination in some of the boys who I met, all around the age of 16. Many of them couldn’t even do a single pull up, let alone skin the cat! The differences between children who are around the age of 5 and the older generations are easy to see. It brings me back to a point I have written about before; that as we age we become less spontaneous, active and enthusiastic, and more inhibited. And perhaps our inhibitions contribute to those other factors, leaving us less confident and out of touch with our bodies.
I thought to myself that there seem to be some fundamental things that underpin what it is to be human:
The need or desire to be physically active - to run, jump, climb, balance, explore and dance.
The need or desire to express ourselves through language, music, singing etc.
All of the physical activities can be viewed as a means of self expression, where dance is simply movement with the deliberate intent of expressing one’s self, with or without music.
Dance, or movement seems quite different when done to music, or in synchronisation with either another movement or sound. For example, jumping up and down in time to a piece of music is different from just jumping up and down, that is unless you create your own rhythm with your jumps.
I believe that everyone initially wants to do these things, but it is our conditioning and inhibitions that wear us down over time, alienating ourselves from our true nature.
I think that during our early years at school, as we are mostly introduced to competitive sports and not much else, we are cut off from the limitless opportunities to explore physically, and nurture this creativity, spontaneity and enthusiasm for movement that is our birthright. Sport seems to promote the idea of training in order to win, for some greater goal, whether alone or as part of a team. But human movement is something far greater than winning, losing and being better than anyone else.
I have fond memories of physical education as it was in my school during the late 80’s and early 90’s, with less structure and more freedom to do things however we felt. For example, I remember our teacher putting on a cassette and we got to run around and move in whatever way we felt fit the music. Strangely, we also had ‘country dancing’ lessons, which upon reflection, resembled a cross between Morris dancing without the bells and sticks, and American line dancing. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who was taught that as a child, besides the other (un) fortunate people at my school.
I would like schools and governments to do more to promote and support a wide cross section of physical activities, as it seems that the prevailing attitude of society is that there are things that are acceptable for a child to do, but not for a grown adult. I don’t believe that an adult ever truly loses their interest in such things, but rather it is hidden beneath various layers that all amount to fear in some form or another. But it is easier to avoid your fears than to challenge or even acknowledge them. What seems to have become the norm, seems far from natural or optimal in my eyes.
Meeting young kids and children has made me realise even more the importance of play, the need for everyone’s individuality to be catered for, and the similarities that we all share as human beings.
I hear people of all ages complain that there are a lack of things to do in their local area or maybe even in life in general, but I believe that people simply haven’t learnt how to use their surroundings to their advantage or enjoy whatever it is they do have. Parkour is a good example of how people are going against this trend.
Resourcefulness isn’t being stimulated in our current environment and situation, and I believe that technology breeds discontent. The more means we have for instant gratification the quicker we find ourselves tiring of our lives, as the moment we satisfy one desire, we are immediately faced with a new one. Caught in a cycle of simply looking for the means to fulfil these desires, all the while missing out on long term happiness and contentment.
Being surrounded by endless distractions makes it easier for us to avoid our real fears and be present to the underlying feelings that drive us. When you can download music for free, faster than you can even listen to it you begin to take it for granted and value it less. There’s nothing inherently wrong with getting anything for free, but it seems that it is hard for us to remain appreciative of what we have when it all comes so easy.
I think this is one of the reasons why people like to work hard in their jobs and during training for example, as if appreciation of anything can only really be achieved through blood, sweat and tears so to speak. For me there has to be a middle ground - to develop an appreciation of all things, no matter how they arise in our lives, and at the same time believe that hard work is not a necessity.
Modern living hands us everything on a plate like never before, which is good in the sense that by having access to everything we want so freely, it gives us a greater opportunity to become aware of our addictions. Instantly getting everything you desire should in theory bring with it the realisation that although you wanted all of those things, in the end it only brought you momentary pleasure, and not the real happiness that you need to fill the empty spaces in your life.
How long can you go on satisfying your addictions before the pleasure you get from them begins to diminish and you are faced with that hollow feeling?
I’ve been through that process with various things before, and it all adds to the evidence that living a simple life, one in which we can derive appreciation from simple living and simple acts, is in many ways a step forward, and not a regression as some people may suggest. The existence of ever-expanding technology in itself doesn’t mean that we must buy into it and integrate with it in order to live better lives. And at the same time I don’t believe that technology should be shunned, if anything we can choose to opt out of it in many cases.
I see no need to stand in opposition of anything, because if something doesn’t serve you in any way then you just need to find a way that suits you, even if it means doing something that hasn’t yet been done. The school system is a good example. In the UK it is a legal requirement for children aged 5-16 to have an education, but nowhere is it stated that they must attend a school establishment to receive that education. If schooling as we know it doesn’t suit you or your child then there are other options if you decide to look.
I personally don’t agree with or wish to try and fit myself to the many standardised models for human life that exist today. I don’t wish to work a 9-5 job all year round, going against my body clock and my natural instincts in order to earn money to exchange for food and other sustenance. There appears to be an unnecessary middle man involved in this process, which is money and all its associations. To me the money system is a step backwards in the history of man, and not necessarily an inevitable progression.
Nobody places the same value on anything, so for example, if you produce a painting with a few hours’ easy work, you could exchange it for something you really need, with someone who values your painting higher. This concept is easy to see when you discover how cheaply materials and labour come in order to produce the clothes we wear for instance. The fact I know how inexpensively my clothes were produced doesn’t mean that I automatically appreciate them less. A shirt on my back is still a shirt on my back, and the skills of a tailor are not something that I possess.
I believe that everyone out there has something to offer, something to exchange, a skill to utilize and a trade to be made, for something that they need in return. In theory this may constitute a job, but the problem is people are being fitted, or trying to fit themselves to jobs and lifestyles that simply don’t work for them. How many people when looking for work honestly say to themselves ‘this is what I want to do’ and then go about looking for that job, or if need be, formulating ways to create that job?
The fact is we are settling for less than we want because we believe we can’t have it.
My problem is that I need more experience trusting faith, and walking through darkness. I feel that I must see the path in order to make it to my chosen destination, but when reaching for new things, when creating new ideas there only exists this infinite space, an unidentified, uncertain future. But the unknown is only ever really one thing. Infinite possibility. Either this unknown is scary, because we fill it with all the negative, worrying possibilities that we can think of, or it is the most exciting blank canvas onto which we can sketch out our inspirations.
Once again, if we look to what has gone before, or what other people are currently doing as guideline for the possibilities that are available to us, we immediately restrict ourselves to ideas and ways of working that may not suit our needs and will only limit us in the end.
If you use your past accomplishments and failures (or anyone else’s) as parameters by which you create or imagine your future, your future will inevitably be just a regurgitation of the past. More and more I am trying to imagine and then accomplish things that I never thought possible before.
First I must dare to believe, then dare to achieve.
In some ways I’ve simplified my idea of what Parkour is to me. When I have recently been asked what I’m training, or what Parkour is I simply describe it as a combination of running, climbing, balancing and jumping. How and why any combination of those elements is used will then always be determined by the individual.
I feel that what separates the different arts is whether or not they produce a physical end product. If you take music for example, there is nothing left when the song finishes, unless a completely separate action of recording has taken place. Dance is the same; you have your physical body and the means with which to move, and when you’re done there is nothing, like there was in the beginning.
With music and dance, the art is in the action and not any product or bi-product. With still photography and film making the art seems to only be tangible through the end results.
In the past I’ve wondered what photography would be like if you were to go out and snap away at things with no film in the camera. Just releasing the shutter, knowing that you would never get to see the image again as it was at that exact moment. Would it still be photography? Would it still be art?
Coincidentally, having watched The Human Machine during the writing of this piece (as reccomeneded by Brad), what David Goggins is saying about being able to visualise himself before racing is exactly what I have been talking about. His explanation about hitting many walls during a race is very much what I have been experiencing when facing my fear of heights. He says that if you choose to leave the door closed you have essentially decided to quit, but if you open it up and then step through, everything gets reset and you can continue to push further on. In the same way, when I choose to do something scary I eventually hit a wall where I need to go higher, or challenge myself in another way in order to open up the realms of possibility. For me the battle is more obviously one of mental endurance, constantly testing the limits and my will to break them.
Something I have experienced when playing sports in the past is that when I am aware of my score and I am ahead in something like a game of table tennis for example, I underperform and find it hard to maintain my focus.
Recently I have noticed something similar when it comes to counting repetitions during training.
Knowing where I am in relation to my goal, whether it be at the beginning or close to the end, seems to draw my attention away from what I am doing. And like I discussed before, it is easy to slip into a pattern of doing things just for the sake of getting them done, and not paying attention to how and why it is you are doing them in the first place.
Although it may take hundreds or thousands of repetitions to become fully accustomed to something, that doesn't mean that we can afford to sacrifice quality for quantity at any time.
This is one reason why I favour the idea of regular training as opposed to attempting to condense hundreds of repetitions into any one session. To some extent, the more you break up such a task into smaller parts, the more you will be physically rested and fresh, and able to give your full attention to your actions.
Parkour is like learning a new language where lots of movements make up the vocabulary, which can be overwhelming if you try to learn it all at once.
I feel almost like counting certain things goes against the idea of what I am actually trying to achieve, as it's not a list of statistics about my accomplishments, but rather the actual feeling of confidence and real competence with what it is I am doing. It's not the actual number of repetitions that will determine when I move onto something else, but the shift in vision and attitude towards the task is what underlies progress.
At this point I personally don't see much that can be gained through conditioning with high reps, or doing many exercises for endurance purposes. If you intend to gain some kind of 'mental toughness' through doing hundreds of push ups for example, what crossover if any will that mental toughness have? In this example I don't think that it will serve to do anything but give you the confidence that you can repeat such a task at a later date, and perhaps push yourself further with it. But aside from that, how will it benefit you in the rest of your practice? I think that repeating something over and over will only directly affect you in relation to that particular exercise. The one thing that I think has the most crossover is training to face and overcome your fears, and fear of heights more specifically. In my experience gaining confidence at greater heights carries over into almost every aspect of Parkour.
I believe that your goals as an individual will determine what it is you need to train in order to be 'complete'. Being complete doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement or progression, but it means that you have the attributes suited to your chosen field. A sprinter is complete if the are able to sprint over a relatively short distance, therefore as a practitioner of Parkour, how complete you are all comes down to what you are training for. For me I don't think there is much benefit in focusing on endurance exercises as my goal isn't to be able to run a marathon or set the world record for sit ups. I see Parkour as being a way of training to overcome obstacles that are ever increasing in size and difficulty, and not training to pass longer and longer groups of similar sized ones. Perhaps I might reach a stage where I'm so good at overcoming these challenges that I simply need the stamina to keep going, but it seems unlikely. I think Parkour calls for high levels of maximum strength and power that enable you to quickly cover vast amounts of space that someone with less strength would not. In many cases being stronger will negate any need for having high levels of endurance, but in Parkour it seems that the opposite is rarely true if ever.
My voyage into the world of strength training has already brought me further than I imagined I would ever go, and I have even opened up to the idea of using weights, in particular learning how to back squat. I have been practising over a number of weeks with bodyweight and a barbell, working on perfecting my form and increasing my flexibility in the areas needed, with the intention of eventually adding weight once I have ironed out my physical creases. I noticed almost instantly the shift from feeling squats in my quads, to feeling them in the hamstrings and glutes as I struggled to maintain my form down to parallel.
I think that even if people don't have access to weights or wish to use anything but bodyweight, simply learning correct squatting technique will be of great benefit over time and will probably save many people from injury. There is a very good guide to squatting here on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=C03D688F10C4DE1F with an accompanying blog that may also be of interest.
Not only do I have a new found love of squatting, but my interest in running has been reignited once again. In my early school days I enjoyed sprinting and long distance running among other things, but my quest to improve my all round physical well being has led me to begin almost re learning everything from scratch again. I feel that up until now I simply continued doing what I was doing without much thought given to my overall posture, flexibility and running technique. This little revolution of mine is intended to put right many things which have been neglected over many years of training. I think I believed that it was too late for me to begin again, and that I had resigned myself to being stuck with what I had and who I was. But now I feel different, and I know that it will be of greater benefit to me in the long run. I think one of the hardest things to do is to admit to yourself that perhaps your way and habit of doing things is not the most productive or efficient in relation to your goals.
I have been watching videos, reading articles and practicing techniques that relate to the pose method of running. The technique is something that I came across years ago and at the time was of little interest to me, and I believe that only now are these things coming into my life again because I am ready for them.
On a different note, over the past 3 months I have been baking my own bread entirely from scratch, and in a standard electric oven. I think I originally began baking bread because we had ran out at home, but we did have the ingredients to make some, and since then I haven't stopped. I have bought bread on only a few occasions, but bake my own at least 3 times a week; just enough for me to eat and not have it sitting around getting stale. I managed to buy 2 kilos of seeds from Holland and Barrett; 2 500g bags of sunflower, and 2 500g bags of pumpkin seeds for a total of just over £5! I have been adding them to the dough, along with various other things like grated carrot, garlic and herbs, finely chopped onion, grated spinach and tomato. It's been a real treat making my daily bread and being able to regulate what goes into it, leaving out unnecessary additives and preservatives and using a minimal amount of salt.