Parkour is often considered a discipline and compared to martial arts in it’s training. I have my own personal thoughts on this…and I figured I’d share.
My Background in Martial Arts
As a young kid, I tried a bunch of traditional American sports. I was in a softball league, I was on a basketball team, I did wrestling for like a week, I went to about four track practices, and I was even on a bowling league. None of this really clicked with me because I was always a really sickly asthmatic kid with no apparent natural athletic ability and I didn’t enjoy any of it (except bowling because I could just mess around with my friends). When I was 14, one of my friends invited me to join him in his karate class. The instructor saw the potential in me and I absolutely loved it. Not long after that I was spending every day after school for 3-4 hours training at the karate studio. Things came quickly and I progressed through the ranks pretty fast. I got my black belt in 2002 and my second degree black belt in 2004. I kept training after that, but a lot more on my own and never progressed any farther in the belt ranks for personal reasons.
The style I trained in is called simply American Freestyle Karate. Our Master Instructor had black belts in something like 8 different styles of martial arts including a 6th degree black in Okinawan Karate and a 4th degree black belt in Judo. He took everything that he knew, and taught us the stuff he liked and he found worked the best. This included Tae Kwon Do style kicks, Karate blocks and self defenses, Western Boxing punching, Judo takedowns, Jiu Jitsu and Aikido joint locks, and Kali weapons training. In addition to the required weaponry (Filipino Escrima Stick), I also trained in traditional Japanese sword training and non traditional bo-staff.
I started teaching my first karate students when I was 17, and started teaching my own classes once I got my black belt. I taught karate pretty much non-stop either with private students or full on classes until just last year. I’ve now officially retired from martial arts teaching. I still train sporadically, but really not very consistently or intensely.
My Background in Parkour
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time that I started training parkour. In my karate training I did a lot of what we called “Extreme” stuff back in my day (they call it “tricking” now). Many of these movements are used in freerunning now so maybe that counts. My first back flip was done when I was 15 in my front yard. I just decided that I could do it, so I did. Around 2002, I started watching videos on the internet (the early days of the internet, before Youtube). When I was watching some of the big teams back then like Team Ryoko from Toronto and Saltomortalez from Prague, they started doing crazy outdoor tricking stuff…so I started doing that too.
My first “parkour” video would have been Russian Climbing by Oleg Vorslav. This was before Youtube existed and I’m not really sure when or where I first saw it. But I immediately decided that this is what I needed to do with the rest of my life. I was training for quite a while before I even realized there were other people in the US that were doing the same thing that I was. My first big jam was in Madison (not sure what year that was) with Mark Toorock, Travis Graves, Levi Meeuwenburg, and bunch of other awesome people.
Now, years later, I own a parkour gym and I’m a member of a major international parkour team. I love my life!
History of Martial Arts
I’m not going to write a novel about the history of all martial arts here. If you really want to learn all about that, you can go look it all up for yourselves. I really only want to point out one key moment in martial arts history. And that is the contributions of Bruce Lee. Most of us really look up to Bruce Lee for the extremely inspirational life he lead and the great things he did for martial arts in general. However, I like to remind people that at the time he was doing all those “great things,” most of the martial arts masters of the time really didn’t like it. Martial arts at the time were very traditional and there was a very “correct” way to do things. People did not mix styles or make up their own ways of fighting. Bruce Lee changed all that by going against tradition and creating his own path.
History of Parkour
Again, I’m not going to write a novel here. Feel free to look everything up yourself. What I do want to mention has to do with what I’ve noticed as a parallel to the history of martial arts. Many of the original practitioners of parkour have often brought up the fact that they highly look up to Bruce Lee and what he did. But for some reason those same people and the ones that follow them closely, insist that we must follow the traditional ways of parkour and we should not be allowed to train in our own ways. I’ve always thought this was an interesting contradiction…but probably for another blog entirely.
My Training in Martial Arts
Training in any martial art is based in hard work and discipline. Long hours of practicing techniques over and over until you completely master them and can perform them without thinking or hesitating. Then, after many techniques have been mastered, you are supposed to forget the techniques themselves and react to situations instantly with no thought or hesitation. Often practitioners also will supplement their training with rigorous conditioning. Both body weight conditioning and weight training are often used.
When I was training martial arts, I took a fondness to the high flying, spinning, flipping kicks and tricks. My thoughts were always that if I could teach my body to do those sort of things, I would have an even easier time with the basic techniques. Also my basics needed to be absolutely perfect to be able to perform those techniques in the first place. It was well known that none of those things would ever be useful in a real world self defense situation, but I was pretty sure I would never be in a situation like that. And the only times I ever have been in a situation like that, those basics I trained so hard worked very well.
My Training in Parkour
Training in parkour is based in hard work and discipline. Long hours of practicing techniques over and over until you completely master them and can perform them without thinking or hesitating. Then, after many techniques have been mastered, you are supposed to forget the techniques themselves and react to situations instantly with no thought or hesitation. Often practitioners also will supplement their training with rigorous conditioning. Both body weight conditioning and weight training are often used.
While I’ve been training parkour, I’ve taken a fondness to the high flying, spinning, flipping tricks. My thoughts were always that if I could teach my body to do those sort of things, I would have an even easier time with the basic techniques. Also my basics needed to be absolutely perfect to be able to perform those techniques in the first place. It was well known that none of those things would ever be useful in a real world situation, but I was pretty sure I would never be in a situation like that. And the only times I ever have been in a situation like that, those basics I trained so hard worked very well.
Hmmmmmm…sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it?
Philosophies of Martial Arts vs. Parkour
I believe this is where the big differences are. While there are some similarities in the philosophies, I want to focus on one very big difference. While you are training martial arts, you are very thoroughly instructed that you are never actually supposed to use the things you are learning. Even in a situation where you could use them, you are supposed to be the better person and just walk away. And if you ever want to know if what you are learning actually works, it’s not like you can just walk up to a random person ad “test out” your martial arts on them. At least…not legally.
Parkour, on the other hand, teaches us to use what we are learning whenever and wherever possible. We are taught that at any and every circumstance we should be testing out our limits against every obstacle we can find. We are supposed to let parkour become so much of us, that there are no more set paths in the world and to see opportunity of movement everywhere we look. In a situation where we really do need to get somewhere or get away from something, we are absolutely supposed to use what we have learned, and if you want to know if your training works…just run! You’ll know quick if you are training properly if you just try to run as fast as you can across any set terrain.
This is the reason that I have found parkour to be a superior discipline to martial arts. Although it requires the same dedication, hard work, and training; if we find ourselves in a real world situation where we can use it, we are encouraged to rather than forbidden to.
This was originally posted on Chad Zwadlo’s personal blog here. Subscribe there to keep up with Chad’s awesome adventures.