Friday, October 05, 2007

How often do you train?

Or would it be easier for you to answer, 'How often don't you train?'

You might be counting up the hours and days now and coming up with an answer along the lines of "twice per week", "4 times per week but I do a bit everyday" or even "I train every day". What I want to explore and explain here are some things that I have noticed mentioned here and there in forums and in bits and pieces of articles, but I have never found it talked about in great detail or emphasised enough to reveal it to possibly be the easiest way to improve your Parkour.

The secret to improving in this discipline quickly becomes obvious to beginners. The formula is simple; the more you practice, the better you become. So how can we practice more when our demanding lifestyles and jobs seem to swallow more and more of our time each week?

When people begin their training, they often focus on the movements that they have seen either in videos, or in person of (particularly good) traceurs, that are out of the ordinary - and why not! They look so spectacular and different. But what they all regularly fail to notice are the movements that they, themselves, already do every day, also being done in a superior way in front of their eyes.

I was lucky enough to be invited along to a gym session earlier this week, near to where I live, to teach, answer questions and offer advice to a group of perhaps 25, 10-18 year olds who had been training for various amounts of time. Some had just started, others had perhaps two years or more training behind them already.

One of the things that I realised quite quickly is that everybody who asked for advice, asked how to do a particular part of a technique better, or for advice on a specific moment of the movement, but nobody asked what to do before the movement, after the movement or what to do whilst in the air.

It got me thinking back to when I started and I was exactly the same. I would focus on the split second of spectacular action when I watched a movement. Whether it was the contact of hands on the wall, the clearing of a rail or the moment where the hands grabbed a branch. That was the impressive part for me and the part I was trying to learn. I wasn't even considering the foot placement for the run up, my posture in the air or the landing.

At the session, nobody asked me how to land after a cat pass or how to begin the run up - only how to do the cat pass itself when they reach the obstacle. Which was interesting. This is completely normal and I'm glad it happened because it encouraged me to write this article and taught me a lot about my own progression and training.

I've mentioned before how frequently that I find people who have been practicing for a year or two who think they are very good now and mastering techniques, ready for bigger, higher, further challenges. But it is only after those first few years that people begin to appreciate just just how deep the Parkour root grows, underground, hidden where you cannot see it at first.

Over time I have come to realise that from the moment I begin my run up for a jump, every single step, swing of the arm and intake of air, up until the moment I stop moving after the obstacle(s), is a part of the technique I am doing and should be treated with equal importance. This is why precision and perfection is so important to me and why I repeat things over and over until I'm happy. The passing of the obstacle might be fine but perhaps there was a stutter in my run up or maybe I held my breath unconsciously half way through. If so, I need to do it again properly. I wouldn't consider something perfect until all of these issues are considered and addressed. Only then will I be satisfied.

I went on holiday two weeks ago with my parents and we spent a great deal of time going to different places, walking around and visiting local places of interest. Whilst out walking one evening by the beach, my mum asked me if I missed training as much as I usually do at home and she was surprised when I answered that I was training right at that moment. We were on a completely flat pavement just next to the beach with nothing that could really be considered an obstacle or obstruction for at least 100m in every direction (unless you include the sea).
She seemed confused and when I explained that I was working on my foot placement, and that when we reach that coke can around 10 metres ahead of us on the ground, I will be on my right leg, and the ball of my foot will be in line with it, she smiled and for a brief second was given a glimpse of just how deep the practice of Parkour can go. It was nice to hear her say that she never realised I trained so often. I reached the can with my right leg, ball of foot in line with it and picked it up to put in the next bin we found (for recycling, of course :P).

To get to the point, the purpose of this article is to express how I believe we can practice Parkour all day, every day. There is absolutely no excuse for not having enough time to practice, since I believe we can practice every time we 'do' anything.

Although I am not very good at this yet, lately I have been working on concentrating on my every movement, whilst doing an everyday task, such as eating, driving my car and walking around my room. I find that I can only keep this up for around ten to twenty minutes at a time before something distracts me momentarily, but that period of time is incredible. I feel more connected with my surroundings and the world in a way that is very refreshing to me. It seems to create more awareness and I feel very calm and centred during these times.

The idea is to pay more attention than usual and maintain a state of higher awareness as to what your body is doing and where you fit in to your surroundings. I was once introduced to a concept known as, 'Zanshin', through Shotokan Karate. It refers to a state of awareness - a state of relaxed alertness. I believe I have more use for this concept now in Parkour than I did practicing martial arts.

You can try this now if you like, from wherever you are reading this. Consider walking to the nearest door. What is in the way? Perhaps there are people or chairs, a bed, a ball or stairs. Walk to the door and from the time you look away from the screen, focus on every single thing. Feel the intake of air as you prepare to move, focus on each muscle contracting as you stand, with just only enough force to shift the weight of your body on to your feet. Why have your arms moved? Return them to a neutral position. Turn purposefully, using the least amount of energy possible without unnecessary movement. How many steps will you need to take until you reach the first obstacle? Plan the distance of your steps appropriately so that you know which foot will be nearest to the obstacle when you reach it, decide how to move past it, move past it and continue to repeat this process until you reach the door. Now do it again from the beginning but with predetermined thought, simply move and be aware of everything your body is doing to get there. Move slowly but smoothly to begin with. It's almost a machine-like routine. If you look at Arnold Schwarzenegger's movements in Terminator 2, everything is ruthlessly efficient and every part of him seems to be moving for a reason, with purpose. No flailing limbs, no faltering on uneven ground, no reason to move at all unless that movement has a purpose to help him to achieve his goal.

I'm not suggesting that we all walk around like robots but this is a good example of a being moving with precision and purpose. It is this precision and purposeful movement that I am trying to practice every time I move, but it is difficult. I soon forget what I'm trying to do and lose concentration a little, but each time I try it I find I can do it for a little longer than the time before.

The benefits are numerous as they are vast. Not only will you conserve energy and be less likely to get injured as you move, you will also be improving every aspect of your Parkour, as your limbs learn to move with more precision. Most of us are guilty of using too much energy to complete every day tasks. Even to open a door, most of us open it more than we need to. Stop using handrails, you don't need them. Stop using elevators and escalators, you don't need them. They rob you of the one thing that we are trying to regain here, time to practice. If you must use an elevator, push the button with only enough force to make it light up. This kind of attitude and train of thought can be carried over in to every aspect of your life. Be methodical in everything that you choose to do.

For more examples of individuals moving with precision, watch Tom Cruise in Collateral or Matt Damon in the Bourne movies. It seems that actors can be very good at being precise when they want to thanks to their study of the human body in motion.

My ultimate goal is to move with precision and purpose, all day, every day. Whether I'm lifting a pen, practicing arm jumps or shopping for... bananas. This would conserve a great deal of energy, help to avoid accidents, teach me more about my body and generally allow me to train my body for up to 16 hours per day in a way that would directly improve my Parkour. Some might even argue that this is the very essence of Parkour itself. I would be simply trying to move with efficiency and precision all of the time, with no difference in mindset between going to the bathroom and passing a rail. Both should be done with equal concentration and precision by the student who wishes to achieve their potential in controlling their body whilst it is in motion.

I like to look around me when I am out in busy streets, I look at the way people walk and I often notice people who seem less caught up in bottlenecks and less likely to bump in to someone as they are moving through the sea of people. They move with more grace than the people around them. I wonder whether they are a martial artists or a dancers perhaps... for it seems that people who spend more time focusing on their movements, even through a hobby, move more efficiently even when they are not thinking about it.

If they could be conscious of this superior grace and realise why they reached their destinations quicker than the average person then they could truly begin to progress to elite levels in their chosen fields, by simply practicing more than other people do.

Perhaps we can do the same.