The Parkour Road Map – A Book Review

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Cover of The Parkour Road Map by Max Henry. All credit to the author


“Real Parkour - can’t be taught...it can only be discovered”. With this line the book “The Parkour Road Map” had me from the first page. Max Henry, long time practitioner from New York, lays out his book as a guideline towards this discovery. He brings together the scattered online history of Parkour, from blog posts to the most significant videos in chapter 1, and then breaks down the Parkour basics in chapter 2. In Chapter 3 and 5 he gives tips and advice to advanced practitioners regarding strength and mental training and a little philosophical detour in chapter 4. The last chapter is dedicated to musings about the future direction of Parkour.
Reading this book felt like sitting down with a good friend in front of the computer and reminisce about our journeys in Parkour. Chapter 1 for me was a nostalgic experience, clicking on many of the provided links to check out old videos and documentaries I almost forgot about. I also enjoyed the second chapter, which gives a thorough overview on the basic Parkour techniques with very good tutorial recommendations and cues.
The third and fifth chapter are filled with technical details and advice and the wealth of wisdom that Max provides is unreal. The book also contains great programming for advanced strength training through sprints and weightlifting. Finally getting to know the training protocol for Max’ power and control is worth the purchase alone. Check out his wonderful video:


What I found most useful was his writing on the mental side of Parkour, on fear and commitment. I will certainly take his advice on creating a habit of commitment and to treat every single attempt as having consequences, even if it’s only on ground level.
Max did a great job of compiling the online resources of Parkour, especially the videos, into a comprehensive overview. It feels like getting shown the ropes of Parkour by a very experienced mentor. This goes beyond technique and philosophy and also includes practical tips on how to deal with authorities in public space and jam etiquette.
But as much as my fellow inner writing nerd wants to applaud Max for the epic achievement of writing this book I have to strongly disagree with him on his view towards competition.
“It’s no secret people love to compete. Billions of us spend our lives vying for status, competing for higher perceived rank or a fatter paycheck. We see aggressive, confrontational aspects of competition embedded in our governments, our economies, our school systems, and even our relationships”. Max views this supposed human trait as something people enjoy, even love. I have to contend that I encountered over and over again in my research that a hypercompetitive society is actually a major driving force behind the increase in burnout, depression and anxiety disorder (my sources are all in German, but I intend to write another blogpost on this soon. So far dear German speakers, see the reading list below). 
Take for example Japan, arguably one of the most competitive societies. They have the unique term Karoshi to describe  the sudden death due to work overload. As Hartmut Rosa, a German sociologist, argues this is due to the systematic force for optimization, efficiency and increasing performance. A hyper competitive society in which individuals have to constantly increase performance produces mental disorders. In Germany increasing efficiency has led to a rate of burnout up to 30% in teaching and care-taker jobs (even when taking into account that it might be a trend diagnosis).  To speak of love for competition is cynical at best (also see Alex Pavlotski's articles https://alexpavlotski.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/parkour-and-the-link-between-competition-and-depression). Of course no one is forced to enter Parkour competitions, but as they grow more prevalent in the culture, people will feel obliged to take part or feel left out. 

Parkour Panels by Alex Pavlovski. https://alexpavlotski.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/parkour-and-the-link-between-competition-and-depression/ All credit to the author.

A recurring theme in my research and in my personal journey was people getting involved because there was no need for competition. I left field hockey and martial arts because I hated the competitions and finally found Parkour as such a welcoming culture.
Some practitioners celebrate the fact that we can have competitions and feel like it’s a jam and a big get together. This however is due to the fact that we all started in a cooperative movement practice, that values effort over performance and personal growth over competition. This spirit, this "unique, wacky, beautiful cultural identity" will eventually be lost to standardization and performance pressure.
If the mantra of Parkour becomes  “Higher, Faster, Stronger” instead of a lifelong, holistic movement practice of challenge and play the original spirit that we fell in love with will be lost (it arguably already has). It might not be in us but in the next generation that gets to know Parkour as a competitive endeavour that these original values will matter less and less.
Max argues that “although we say Parkour is fundamentally non-competitive, it’s clear that isn’t true.” I agree, Parkour isn’t anything inherently but what we make of it, how we practice it, how we present it and how we talk about it. And its also true that the Yamakasi were a fiercely competitive group, but reading “Breaking The Jump” closely you can see that that also lead them to being extremely elitist and exclusionary. I don’t know the story personally but reading of Stephane Vigroux lying alone in a hospital bed with a wrecked knee shows you what elitism leads to.
I’m not opposed to friendly competition and comparing yourself to other to a certain extent. But by having official competitions we decide the extent to which this comparison goes. By holding up values of cooperation, comradery and personal growth we encourage people not to compare themselves but to work on their personal needs.
Parkour could go the way of skateboarding and surfing, with super regulated, street league style competitions and soul surfers on opposite ends of the spectrum, but this will only happen if there are people unapologetically defending the non-competitive spirit of Parkour. I want to reiterate Crish ‘Blane’ Rowats “Call to Arms” (http://blane-parkour.blogspot.de/2012/11/a-call-to-arms.html): “This is a call to arms for those I still consider to be the vanguard of Parkour. The time is now. Make a difference by showing and sharing and being the other sides of Parkour that you know and love. The sides that some would see forgotten as the discipline grows”. Society already has enough competition, lets make Parkour a place where people don’t have to feel that pressure.
To conclude I loved this book and I really recommend everyone to read it. Novices and advanced practitioners alike will find a great wealth of information in this book. I would have liked to see him take a more nuanced stance on competition, like for example Damien Puddle did in his post on Parkour and the Olympics (http://nzparkour.co.nz/parkour-in-the-olympics-lessons-from-agenda-2020-action-sport-symposium/). I hope that people don’t take my critique as an offense but rather as an invitation for argument and discussion, so Parkour can grow together with its values that we all fell in love with and become an open and inclusive movement culture.
It's available for different prices starting at 0$ (yes that’s right) at: http://www.parkourroadmap.com/
(I also highly recommend Max Henry’s blog at http://www.parkourroadmap.com/blog especially “The dying art of hard work”)
 
Paul

Further Reading List:
Max Henry (2016) The Parkour Road Map. Available at: http://www.parkourroadmap.com/
Julie Angel (2016) Breaking the Jump
Chris 'Blane' Rowat (2007) Dilution
 Chris 'Blane' Rowat (2012) A Call to Arms
Alex Pavlotksi (2016) Parkour and the link between Competition and Depression
Harmut Rosa (2016) Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehungen
Oliver Tieste (2000) Karoshi, ein japanisches Phänomen? Ursacehn und rechtliche Hintergründe für den Tod am Arbeitsplatz. Eine rechtsvergleichende Studie
Gustav Greve (2011) Orgainzational Burnout. Das versteckte Phänomen ausgebrannter Organisationen

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2 Comments

  1. I'd agree that competition leads to a whole host of mental disorders, but it does seem to be universal constant. Every ecological and biological process, from vegetation seeking to dominate the forest canopy to members of the same species engaging in a genetic arms race, is rife w/ competition. Stating that competition is ubiquitous is not an endorsement, but a recognition that it fundamental to all existence. Environments constantly change, and competition is necessary for adaptation.

    Society, and its sub-elements such as the semiconductor industry and parkour, evolve because of competition. Parkour as sport has evolved so rapidly because of the one-upmanship engendered by youtube. Granted, the drawbacks of such fierce competition include unsustainable practices, discouragement of newcomers, and self-objectification for the benefit of viewers, but the desire to keep up with the Joneses is a driving force for human achievement and innovation.

    A balance between collaboration and competition can be achieved, however, as even competing species within an ecosystem compete still collaborate (e.g. a tree that blocks sunlight from a shrub also provides that shrub with nutrients from its metabolical processes.) The landing on the moon is a perfect example of competition and collaboration intersecting for the betterment of humanity -- the ideological competition between the Americans and Soviets created the desire to push the limits of human potential, but in order to achieve the technical marvel of landing a man on the moon required the intense collaboration of multiple agencies and thousands of people.

    Competition is unlikely to be ever banished from society, nor should it be, as its benefits are obvious. Also, it is not necessarily in conflict with collaboration. The trouble arises when the scales between between competition and collaboration become unbalanced, as with a blight in the forest, unbridled capitalism, or youth sports that take the joy out of movement. Here, Aristotle's maxim "seek balance in all things" seems to apply.

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    1. Great points and thanks for your comment. I agree that competition can be extremely benefitial and should not dissappear. In fact it enabled a more cooperative society.
      To me looking at the societal level however I just see that competition is already everywhere and that seriously worries me. Within parkour I am sure the community can strike a balance and not become overly competitive, but I want to advocate a practice that is a competitive free space in an ocean of competition.

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