Youth Culture Window
Scaling walls. Jumping off buildings. Vaulting from roof top to roof top. Running obstacle courses at break neck speeds. It's the kind of stuff that makes even the great Chuck Norris wet himself.
For teenagers, it's just the new, extreme sport that's taking over their world.
You may not know it by its name. You may not even be able to pronounce its name. You might even be slightly afraid of it when you see it in action. But you have seen it. Trust me.
It's called Parkour (pronounced "par KOOR"), and it's the growing trend among young people who have enough athletic ability to run through cityscapes, balance on fences, fly down stairwells, hurdle over picnic tables, bound up the side of a wall, and all the other stuff any self-respecting, modern-day ninja would do.
It's like Jet Li meets The Matrix.
The sport's maneuvers have names such as "cat leap," "roll," "Kong jump," and "speed vault." This article describes several of the terrifying - but super exciting - maneuvers.
If you've seen Daniel Craig's first James Bond flick, Casino Royale, you've seen Parkour. If you watched the season opener of "The Office" this year, you've seen Parkour, (Well, sorta.) If you've seen the wildly popular videos on YouTube filled with kids throwing their bodies at and over obstacles, you've seen Parkour.
You've probably seen Parkour just driving through your neighborhood or town.
Parkour comes from the French phrase, "l'art du déplacement," or "the art of moving." On our side of the pond, however, the sport usually goes by the name "free-running." At its essence, Parkour is about "getting from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible." Male participants are called "traceurs," and female competitors are called "traceuses."
I just call em "crazy."
Not for the Faint of Heart...or Will
Most of the documentation on the sport is very consistent; participants call for high levels of self-discipline, constant attention to safety, and personal growth for themselves and one another. Urban Freeflow, a leading voice in the Parkour community (whose slogan is, "We Run This City") even has a number of articles that talk about the importance of strengthening both body and mind. In a sport that's very much male-dominated, it's good to hear that participants usually don't smoke because of the ill effect it has on endurance, nor drink alcohol because of the ill effect it has on balance.
In fact, even though Parkour and skateboarding are both "extreme sports," Parkour competitors don't like to be associated with - or compared to - their board-riding peers...mainly because of the "rebellious and misguided" reputation of so many skateboarders.
Interestingly, what's turned into a breakthrough sport in America actually has roots in French military warfare and emergency rescue.
Practitioners of the extreme sport are generally in agreement about the origin and proliferation of Parkour. Two Frenchmen are credited with integral roles: Georges Hébert developed "The Natural Method," a system of body contortions and maneuvers that serves as the foundation for Parkour, and David Belle, who greatly popularized the sport by integrating Hébert's moves and methods into the military training he supplied for French armed forces.
Parkour may be the coolest gift France has given us since the Statue of Liberty...and I'm sure American traceurs would LOVE to "free run" all over Lady Liberty!
There are several reasons why Parkour is growing in popularity with American youth. First, it's of European descent, and things from Europe usually have a way of hitting our shores; for instance, the search for religious freedom, soccer, and more recently, the pursuit of national health care.
Second, Parkour requires no sporting equipment, other than a trusty pair of sneakers. Of course, somebody in your group needs to own a video camera so you record yourself hanging upside down and jumping off ledges...and then post the videos on YouTube.
Oh yeah, YouTube. The third - and probably biggest - reason that Parkour is growing in popularity is due to the incredible amount of videos posted online by Parkour activists. Currently, a search for "Parkour" on YouTube yields a couple hundred thousand results. The Missoula Parkour group, a well-known entity within the Parkour community, has several videos on YouTube, plus their own group website.
After watching these videos, I'm really glad I decided to take up golf.
The fact that Parkour is growing in popularity in the states is not lost on those who market to youth. It's only a matter of time before someone steps in and uses Parkour to try and make a buck.
Back in October of 2009 MTV aired "the first ever Parkour contest on American soil." (By the way, check out some of the comments left by hardcore Parkour enthusiasts who don't like the idea of MTV reducing their sport to entertainment or cheap competition.)
More recently, MTV has announced that they will air a new show entitled "MTV's Parkour Challenge" to hopefully woo couch potatoes who would rather watch others punish their bodies. A fair question may be, "Isn't this upcoming show the same thing as MTV's Jackass with Johnny Knoxville?"
I don't think so. The point of Parkour seems to be disciplining the body and using the mind to overcome obstacles. Jackass...well...Jackass was basically an obstacle to the mind.
When watching the online videos of the young people who are filming themselves in desperate attempts to break the constraints of gravity, one has to wonder, "How often do these guys get hurt? And how badly?"
Almost all of the online Parkour videos are basically a digitally-edited series of stunts, one after another, that fills up the exact amount of time required to play one rock song. For the most part, viewers don't see the epic failures of free runners. Thankfully, a few humble Parkour activists have chronicled their accidents, bails, and fractures to caution those interested in taking up the sport.
Of course, it was just a matter of time until someone got killed. The extreme sport is being blamed for the death of one young man in Sacramento, but the investigation is ongoing.
Parkour - Participate or Pass?
Though Parkour has been in America for several years now, a little more time may be required to see exactly how the European sport influences the youth of America. Parkour is really exciting to watch - online and in person - thus, its current fan base isn't likely to shrink.
The positive aspects of the sport are elements that are quite praiseworthy: self-discipline, personal growth, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. But the inherent dangers of the sport are hard to ignore.
Most youth workers will probably have a few students who will want to try their hand at the sport. It's probably wise to counsel them to make sure they have their parents' permission first, and then to be responsible and cautious when actually competing.
No one really knows where this sport will go. Parkour could be the next extreme sport youth workers seize as an avenue to share the gospel (much like skate parks in the past). Then again, it might soon fizzle, or be prohibited because of business owners' and community's concern over injured teenagers.
Regardless, you should be aware of the trend and be able to dialogue with your students about it. If you show your students that you know about Parkour, it could open up conversations to topics far more important than extreme sports.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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