THE FEAR FACTOR
In the summer of 2016, the entire STORROR team made an extended trip to Asia. We spent two weeks in each of three mega cities, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, to make a feature length documentary about parkour on the rooftops of skyscrapers.
That film was called Roof Culture Asia. The aim was to get some really nail-biting content to illuminate the controversial, dramatic, spectacle side of parkour, and to explain the thoughts and processes behind it.
Don’t roll the dice
For the whole six weeks in Asia, on a daily basis, we were facing challenges with potentially deadly consequences. If you only ever watched the RCA highlights video or the trailer, you might assume we were taking reckless risks each day. But, believe it or not, contrary to what concerned parents and common muggles (non-parkour folk) might think, relying on our skills is not akin to a roll of the dice.
Of course, if we were taking reckless risks at height for six weeks straight, statistically it’s likely at least one of us would have come home in a body bag. However, the truth is, nothing we chose to do involved taking a leap of faith. There was no grand risk despite there being potentially grand consequence. And the two are very different things.
We made grounded decisions based on countless previous experiences, and committed to every jump with absolute certainty that we weren’t falling down the middle. None of us has a death wish. Each of us rather likes living and doesn’t want to stop any time soon. We don’t roll the dice and we don’t do leaps of faith.
A leap of faith implies we’re not 100% sure and there are still questions to be answered. Belief is not enough to get you across the gap or to complete a sketchy window ledge traverse safely. It’s only your deeply ingrained, drilled capabilities and a well-grounded trust in them that get you across.
I can personally say most things I did during the filming for Roof Culture Asia were moves I could have repeated one hundred times without failure. I mean, if I were to start on a fresh pair of legs every time. One hundred reps of those jumps back-to-back would be pretty hardcore!
Nothing we did with potentially fatal consequence was reckless. Everything we did would have been a piece of cake at ground level. We weren’t pushing ourselves physically or technically. That’s for ground level training with low consequence. The rooftops of skyscrapers were to push us mentally.
Mental challenges are where we look at the challenge for what it is physically, know we can do it with 100% certainty, and quell fears of fatal consequence. When only the physical is involved, and we have that deeply ingrained grounded trust in our abilities and years of experience, the possible consequence isn't an issue. You can only gain this trust with many, many years of diligent training.
Passing on genes
Fear is a huge part of parkour. It’s pretty hard to get anywhere without confronting some demons. It doesn't matter who you are. Whether a noob on your very first session or a proficient athlete with over a decade’s experience and street accolades under your belt. Especially in our first sessions where everything is new, and even a step-vault over a rail is the unknown and can invoke many questions. We slowly but surely press on and find out the answers to a lot of the questions, find out how different movement patterns work, how much force our body can produce, how to land on certain surfaces, and so on and so on.
That doesn’t stop as you get more experienced. Of course, you don’t have to be high up to find something that challenges you or is terrifying. Needless to say, all of the STORROR team still trains at ground level. In fact, I’d say a good 90% of our training is. Not only is there always so much work to be done technically and physically but there are endless challenges that are still scary at ground level. It’s not like you reach a certain level of expertise and then training on the street doesn’t cut it for you anymore.
An important point to remember is that we have evolved to have fear for a reason. It keeps us from experiencing hazardous and painful stuff. Fear makes us take care and take every precaution we can to prevent injury or death. Ancestors who lacked any fear of predators weren’t likely to pass on their genes. At the end of the day, having fear is a great thing because it grounds us. People say that performing the feats we did on the rooftops of Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul shows we have no fear. But, on the contrary, it is fear that kept us alive.
I’ve met quite a few people who hurt themselves far too often, and cause their friends to wince while watching them train, because their skill level is below their confidence level. That’s a dangerous and delusional place to be. I’d have hated to have people like that with us when filming for Roof Culture Asia. And I probably wouldn’t have had to put up with it for longer than a couple of days anyway. In other words, they wouldn’t be passing on their genes.
Being logical about fear
Obviously, you can be on the other end of the spectrum too, where your mental level is far below that of what you’re physically and technically capable of. I can guarantee that’s the safer end of the spectrum, although it can be frustrating knowing you can achieve more but are held back by fear. So here are some ideas that I hope may help you to combat fear.
The best way to illustrate it is this: imagine you have two circles. Your outer circle is what you are physically and technically capable of doing (that which you can do). The inner circle is what you are mentally capable of doing (that which you will do). So someone who’s inner circle is a small dot in the middle of the outer circle, which will look like an eye that’s just been dazzled with light, is someone who’s capable of a lot but their mental game is weak as a floppy flannel.
Now, the goal should be to close the gap and make the two circles meet. That’s when your mind and body are fully in tune with one another. You look at something, you know without a shred of doubt that you can cream it, and you do with next to no deliberation. Merging these two imaginary circles should be the goal for everyone.
I don’t think there is anyone who is at that level though, and it’s highly unlikely there ever will be. Not unless they’re secretly a monkey. I know people who seem close, but still there are times they’ve been harshly brought back down to earth, whether that be due to a lapse in concentration or something overlooked.
The type of people I mentioned earlier, who I’d hate to take on the rooftops of Asia, are those whose inner circle has leaked out over the outer circle. If I use the eye to illustrate again, the pupil would have dilated beyond the whole of the cornea and it looks like something from a horror film. That would be those who go for stuff beyond their physical and technical capabilities. No one wants to be that ‘Sketchy Andy’, where every jump is a close call and every training session looks more like a battle to the death.
A very common and stressful thing we come across in parkour is the mental block. A mental block is ultimately a seemingly impassable fear that’s holding us back from committing to a challenge. We can overcome these mental blocks only by thinking about the challenge logically. Logic is our best friend in parkour.
It’s not a good idea just to run, put your body on the spot, and hope you’ll adapt. At no point do we want to be fully amped up and rely on adrenaline when running up for a jump, while logic is sitting in the back seat, limbs bound, trying to speak with duct tape over its mouth. That’s not a great way to get anywhere in the sport. That’s letting your fear chemicals and your favourite hype track in your earphones dangerously fill in for the logical breakdown of a challenge. The whole process leading up to committing should be cool, calm and collected.
When we come to a challenge, we essentially need to answer a bunch of questions and fill in gaps in data before we decide to commit. Some challenges seem insurmountable at first, but when you start chipping away and connecting pieces of the puzzle you’ll quickly start feeling better about it. Or if we can’t find a way to answer the questions, then it’d be best to step away and leave it until we’re better equipped. We want to tick the questions off our mental list. Some challenges have more to tick off than others and some are pretty simple.
With everything that scares us it’s important to ask why. If you’re looking at a jump that’s terrifying, you can’t just expect it to appear less terrifying the more you look at it. Replicate the challenge, or certain phases of the challenge, to your heart’s content. Anything that’s going to put you a step further towards committing and knowing you’ll be able to adapt safely is good, and is exactly what you need to break a mental block.
Risk and consequence ratio
A good thing to remember, to keep you thinking rationally about fear, is the ratio of risk and consequence. For example, high consequence being plummeting to your doom, impalement, landing on your neck and breaking it, etc. Low consequence being stubbing your toe or a minor ankle impingement (better known throughout the community as The Ankle Thing) or even, as in so many cases, you come up short on landing and bounce off completely unscathed. Then there’s risk, which is the likelihood of that consequence occurring.
As an example of the extreme end of the risk scale, if we have someone looking at a ten foot level cat-pass precision over a fifty storey drop, from a thin wall, at night, to a corrugated plastic roof that our guy hasn’t checked is sturdy enough to bear his weight, our guy has only ever made a three foot level cat-pass before, in a soft gym environment, is known to often miss his hands on the wall, and has no great deal of experience undershooting or catching himself should he not get his feet to the top of the wall. Oh, and he’s drunk too. Needless to say, this is an equation for great peril and if our guy hucks this one he will surely be brown bread¹.
Put simply, very high risk of failure + very high consequence = very dead / absolutely not worth committing. Then there’s the other extreme of the spectrum. Let’s say someone who’s been training every weekend for a year goes to standing precision to a curb from the ground, three feet back, and he doesn’t have bones of soft pastry and Blu Tack tendons. I’d wager he’s good to go. Very low risk of failure + very low consequence = success / no challenge whatsoever.
Now let’s bring it back to a scenario less obviously absurd, like more of an everyday training encounter. Say a thirteen foot far level running precision with ample run up space, clean take-off, thick grippy walls, and only six foot off the ground. Our guy this time is a bit more experienced, he’s done some very similar jumps before but not this far or this high off the ground, so it’s a perfect challenge to push his mental capabilities.
He knows how to react, his foot placement isn’t so shabby that he’ll miss his feet, and he’s learned to always appreciate the importance of solid foot placement with the take-off leg. It’s a pretty easy distance for him physically, and he knows how to bounce off should he come up short for some reason, and his ankles are strong enough to take it.
Our guy’s also not drunk, which is a plus. It looks like he’s good to go. He’s thought about all these things and considers it very low risk that he should come to harm, despite it being fairly high consequence as it is at head height. These are all factors that build up the equation.
This may seem silly and obvious when written down but, when confronting a challenge that scares us, this is what our inner monologue should be similar to. Some people process all the information pretty quickly and rationally. Others are slower and flip-flop a bit, and that’s fine, because to be safe it’s best not to rush and leave stones unturned thus increasing risk. But some people struggle to break things down this way and leave challenges prematurely, cheating themselves out of progress.
So how do we work toward a good place that is healthy or toward the fabled perfection where both circles meet? How do we stop ourselves wussing out of things we know for a fact we can do but just can’t bring ourselves to? I think the best way is to log data efficiently.
What I mean is, while training and doing challenges make mental notes of everything you do, think and feel. How that distance felt difficulty-wise, how you reacted to undershooting or overshooting, how the landing felt from a certain height, how your hands felt with a certain amount of swing power, etc. Obviously the variables are vast and these are just a few examples. Keep the data neatly stored in your head so you can efficiently pull the memories out of the archive when battling a similar challenge.
I’ve found it really useful comparing things I’ve done in the past to a challenge I’m facing. To have a vivid comparison you must have been mindful during the previous challenge, of course. Pay attention to the process of challenges and to what the tipping point was that caused the decision to send it. So when you’re like our guy who’s looking at his thirteen foot running precision, you can scan the archive for similar ones, use what you learned from them and make a grounded decision to commit. This is what I mean by diligent training - being mindful and paying attention. It’s how to make the best use of every time you train.
¹ Brown bread - British rhyming slang for dead
Article adapted from Callum Tip No. 300 (June 2018) | instagram.com/callumstorror