This post was written and shared as part of Time To Talk Day 2022, an initiative to encourage conversations around mental health. You can check out more on Time To Talk here and start your own conversations using the tag #TimeToTalk on social media.
I’ve been hanging out on the Parkour Earth Discord for a little while now. 1 While there, a conversation came up in the coaching channel about motivation for your own training as a coach, and how it changes after you stop coaching. In particular, this quote stood out to me:
I’ve gone through many ups-and-downs over the years in coaching / training but now have a good equilibrium I think. The key was that all-important word - challenge. If you’re not challenging yourself while training and just going through movements you can already do, then it just gets boring. I’ve found the key to be that I HAVE to do something I’ve not before in every session of training and I have to be scared of it. If I’m not worried, then I’m comfortable - which means I’m not going to get much out of it.
What was interesting was that my own experience was almost the complete opposite - for one, the impetus of needing to keep in good condition for coaching kept my motivation up, and since stopping coaching I’ve found it harder to care about my own training as much. But the idea of ‘challenge’ in a training session is also something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit recently. In fact, I’ve tried to write a variation on this blog post a number of times and abandoned it, but the conversational nature of the Discord chat finally got me to lay it out in a way I kind of liked. So, I’ve taken my replies and expanded on them a bit to put together this post.
Burnout and challenge
Looking back, I think I went through a really intense period of burnout last year (in many aspects of my life, not just training). As a result, I found that the second I encountered meaningful challenge in my training - whether that be psychologically or physically - my body would just shut down, and kill the session dead. The best way I find to describe it is that my ‘spare emotional bandwidth’ is severely reduced, and things I would normally take in stride or even relish the challenge of instead boil me over into stress and anxiety much quicker. Consequently I’ve had to curtail the intensity of my training to the point that my criteria for success for a day will sometimes be as as little as “did a single push up” or “went for a walk”. 2
But that in turn has had a very negative interaction with my understanding of what makes a worthwhile training session - that is, it HAS to be hard, or challenging. I would end a training session feeling guilty that I had not pushed myself within it. And that would further fuel an apathy for training over time - what’s the point in doing it if I’m not dying by the end of every training session, or conquering fears constantly?
I think it’s an attitude that I built up over time because, well, that’s the implicit culture of parkour. It’s unspoken, but there are often extremely unrealistic standards for the elite physical and mental abilities parkour athletes are expected to have. Those expectations are often not a reasonable level of athleticism for someone to achieve or maintain who is not pursuing the sport full time as a professional or with the dedicated passion of a true devotee. There is also an implicit expectation of constant progression and improvement that is hard to reconcile when you inevitably encounter training plateaus. 3 This leads to an environment of perpetual challenge where there is no rest and no finishing line. It’s anecdotal but I know SO many people who have either burnt out on the sport or suffered from the same feelings of guilt about not being ‘good enough’ or training ‘hard enough’ that I have. I think it is, in short, really hard to just be a hobbyist traceur. 4
To really pile on the problems, my loss of interest in training and parkour had yet another knock-on effect. As a lifestyle sport, it is very easy for parkour to become the dominant pillar in your life. Up until relatively recently, parkour was my career, hobby, entertainment, and social circle. Even more importantly, it was what I did, what I was. Without it, what am I?
I was still at university at this point, so I couldn’t call myself a ‘sports therapist’ or ‘researcher’ or ‘lecturer’ or any of the things I aspired to be yet. ‘Student’ is itself a transitional term. What was left? I love being a husband, but I didn’t want to be a ‘husband’. Other hobbies had been crowded out by parkour over the years. I don’t mind telling you that I felt truly adrift.
This phenomena of sudden disassociation with something previously established as a core aspect of an identity is sadly one that can come up in sport, particularly lifestyle sports, a lot. Often it’s as a result of an injury - if you can no longer physically play, it can feel like it’s been snatched away from you. In my case it was a more gradual fading away, but it left me just as bereft.
So in very short order I went from burnt out, to apathetic, to bereft of identity. All because I stopped engaging with a single activity. That’s a lot. I may be an extreme case but I know it’s happened to others. As a result, I always feel a little pang of worry when I see someone who has the word ‘parkour’ or ‘traceur’ in their personal social media handles. It shouldn’t be in your name, in your identity. It feels too… close.
As a discipline, I don’t think we really talk about these potential negative psychological effects (effects that are found in almost any degree of high-level sports performance) and the impact they can have on athletes nearly enough. And I have a couple of theories why. Firstly, we’re still striving for acceptance and legitimacy in the eyes of much of the established sporting world, or hell, the world in general. Everyone wants to present parkour in the best possible light, which is great, but it doesn’t mean we get to just ignore the downsides.
In a way, I think we’d benefit from coming to terms with the fact that parkour isn’t as special or unique as we’ve all sometimes pretended it is. Many of the special things touted for parkour (physical fitness, seeking challenge, facing fear, community) can happily be found in other activities, and just as similarly, many of the downsides of other activities (social pressure, identity, burnout) can be found in parkour. But the relentless act of presenting parkour in the best possible light - even if entirely understandable in the circumstances - brushes those conversations under a rug.
Secondly, parkour is still very young-male dominated, a group of people famous for not being able to talk about their feelings. Discouraged from doing so by society, even! What’s worse, I’ve seen an increase in the embracing and sharing of a disturbingly ‘man-up’ approach to training and mental health in some circles, through advocacy for the works of (sigh) Jordan Peterson and his ilk. 5 It’s through phrases like ‘anti-fragility’ and ‘grit’ that young men who are suffering are led to believe they have somehow failed at being tough enough rather than experiencing an entirely normal and human ebb and flow of emotion. The wrapping up of constant risk-facing or fear-conquering, something often understood to be an intrinsic part of parkour, with macho-masculinity is something I’ve also wondered about since reading “Masculinity ≠ Risky Business” last year.
In my opinion, and forgive me for the upcoming very dramatic sentence, but: it all combines with the perceived assumption of elite-level ability and expectation of perpetual unending challenge inherent in parkour practise to form an environment that is extraordinarily effective at suppressing the honest expression of male anguish, which in turns bleeds out to become the dominant culture of the sport.
Oh boy. It’s sentences like that make me glad I don’t have a comment section on these posts.
More broadly, I also think this ties into a lot of the ‘overcoming obstacles’ aspect of parkour. It is a pretty central tenet of parkour practise to find a challenge, and try and conquer it. This can lead to a very objective, problem-solving mindset, and a tendency to not allow oneself to quit something hard. In theory this is grand, but this narrative overwhelms empathetic discussion of issues; I’ve seen pleas for help absolutely subsumed by suggestions for ways to ‘solve the problem’, rather than simply providing genuine emotional support. It also smothers the idea that, sometimes, the right thing to do for your own well-being is actually to quit.
I’ll say that again: sometimes, the right thing to do is to honestly assess why you feel you should be doing the thing, and to quit the thing if it’s making you miserable rather than struggle on out of some feeling of obligation. It’s what I did. I made the decision to consciously decouple myself from parkour training, as it was no longer the right thing for me to be doing at that stage of my life. And, let me tell you, finally actively giving myself permission to walk away from that source of stress in my life to focus on other things felt so good.
It’s important to emphasise something I mentioned above - these things are mostly implicit in parkour. It is a side-effect. Nobody (at least in my experience) is intending to stress out fellow athletes or wilfully looking to turn a blind eye to these issues, particulary in the coaching community. I often as a coach heard, took part in, or initiated conversations about reassuring a student they were doing well or that it’s not about comparing themselves to other athletes. 6 But there can be quite a big difference between what is said and how it feels. And these conversations tend to be aimed at reassuring beginners, not aimed at providing psychological aid to experienced athletes who are, I expect, simply assumed to be able to cope.
As a developing sport/discipline, we are in a great position to instead build the psychological well-being of our athletes into the very foundations of our practise. All it takes is being willing to talk about it.
- Which you can also join here: https://discord.com/invite/aESab8czGw ↩︎
- Small side story: the only physical activity I really got into last year was running. Recently, after about 18 months of not doing any strength or resistance training at all, I discovered I couldn’t do a single push-up anymore. I decided to commit to doing a minimum of one push-up a day for a while, just to get a bit of strength back. After only a month, I was back up to sets of about 12-15 reps. This is why I like to tell people not to overly worry about taking a break from particular exercises or training in general - you might not retain your strength or fitness completely, but it comes back so much quicker than it took to get it in the first place. ↩︎
- Not that there’s anything wrong with that mindset when you’re capable of it - just that it’s not realistic to always maintain. ↩︎
- For a lot more in-depth look at some of these points, check out Kasturi’s (of Esprit Conrete) PhD thesis: https://repository.londonmet.ac.uk/6852/1/Torchia-Kasturi_DCouPsy-thesis-submission.pdf ↩︎
- I won’t mince my words, I fucking loathe ol’ J. Piddles. Here’s a pretty comprehensive break down of his schtick from 2018, and he’s only gotten worse since then. ↩︎
- For a nice example of the foregrounding of a positive mental approach to parkour training in coaching: see this blog post by John ‘Hedge’ Hall of Access Parkour about their values and mission statement ↩︎