The evolution of my thoughts on competition

Last weekend I attended (and competed in) NZ’s first parkour competition, organised by Honest Parkour and held at Flow Albany in Auckland. The event was modeled off the NAPC and Apex competitions in Canada and the US, with Speed, Skill and Style events. I competed in Speed (came 9th) and Skill (7th) and was convinced to have a play during the Style jam qualifiers as well where I introduced everyone to rail dancing and (intentional) belly flops. I didn’t progress any further but I was definitely in a league of my own.

For it being the first of its kind in New Zealand and only a small group of guys putting it together, it seemed to run remarkably smoothly and I heard a lot of good feedback from participants and spectators alike. This, however, is not a review, but rather a reflection.

I have traditionally been quite anti-competition when it comes to parkour, and being involved in the parkour community has even lessened my interest in competition outside of parkour. However,  through the process of my PhD research on the development of parkour in New Zealand (thesis to be submitted in early 2019), particularly my in-depth interviews with different practitioners around the country, my feelings on competition have begun to change. With competition in parkour still a very contested topic and with the recent JAMZAC competition having just happened I thought it was good timing to share the evolution of my thoughts.

Part 1

I started training parkour in 2008 after meeting Barnz, one of the first Kiwi traceurs. The parkour that he introduced to me was non-competitive. Barnz was my mentor and I was the newcomer, so I trained in the way he and others in the local Hamilton community trained and talked the way they talked.

Parkour was non-competitive because that’s what Barnz told me.

Part 2

Although I trusted Barnz, I realised that he was getting his information from somewhere, so I read everything there was to read and I watched everything there was to watch. From my research, I discovered that even though there was fragmentation and diversity among the founders of parkour, they all seemed to agree that it wasn’t a competitive activity (it’s important to note that there seems to be a louder anti-competition voice among 2nd and 3rd generation practitioners). By this time, however, there were parkour and freerunning competitions being held around the world. None of the people running these competitions were the founders, and the founders say  (or have said) these events aren’t authentic. Who am I to say otherwise?

Parkour was non-competitive because the founders said it was, that means that parkour competitions are an oxymoron.

Part 3

While I recognised that the founders said parkour was non-competitive and I agreed, I also recognised that a) I actually have no real connection to them  as I haven’t met or spoken with them directly and they haven’t been to New Zealand, and b) they have been quite open-handed with the development of parkour and their opinions change as well. So, while parkour was non-competitive initially, there are now competitive streams available due to different people heeding the advice of the founders and “following their own path”.

Throughout the process of coaching parkour, helping to start and eventually lead Parkour NZ, and also my own training journey, I really came to value the transformative power of parkour; how parkour helped to change people’s lives. One of the common themes I’ve picked up surrounding parkour’s mystique is that it felt more approachable and inclusive to many people because it was non-competitive. There was no grading, no getting picked last for a team because your abilities weren’t up to scratch, no comparisons. A breath of fresh air amongst an ever increasing smog of competitive sporting congestion.

I was involved in competitive sports (particularly rugby) in my youth and so parkour’s non-competitive nature wasn’t the initial drawcard for me, but as a coach and administrator, I really value the stories of the people I work with and for.

Parkour was traditionally non-competitive and while there are competitions now, non-competitive parkour is more valuable because the long term ramifications of competition are likely to result in parkour being less inviting and inclusive.

Part 4

So far, I’ve interviewed 18 traceurs, traceuses and freerunners for my PhD. I’ve interviewed typically polarised practitioners who are traditional/anti-competition and modern/pro-competition. But I’ve also interviewed David Belle zealots who think competition could be quite a valuable training tool, freerunners with no allegiances who think competition hampers freedom and every other position on the parkour spectrum. I knew that the NZ scene was diverse, but it is significantly more nuanced than I ever thought.

A sometimes parkour student of mine and friend shared her thoughts with me about the competition. She comes from a karate background and is used to the institutionalisation of belts, colours, tests and grading. It wasn’t a choice, it was a requirement. She loves the non-competitive nature of parkour compared to her karate experience, but she participated in the JAMZAC competition because she was able to choose to participate and she found that fun and empowering.

I have heard some really weak arguments in favour of competition (e.g. “It’s just another excuse to get together” – that’s only valid if the event is held on a new date, but if it replaces a jam that was already going to happen that argument doesn’t hold up), but I’ve also realised that fighting against competition in an attempt to make things more inclusive (my previous stance against competition) is another form of exclusion. Who am I to say that another expression is invalid or less authentic?

Parkour was traditionally non-competitive but now there are many different ways that you can experience parkour.

Part 5

So, I’m no longer anti-competition it seems. But I’m not ready to embrace parkour competition without some caveats:

  • Stories
    • There are many ways that you can experience parkour, but some of these ways have louder voices in the neo-liberal and Western world than others (e.g. competition is fast and exciting and will, therefore, attract sponsorship, gain profile and popularity). It is worth ensuring that many different stories are being shared so that people can see themselves participating in parkour. This is why I believe the work of groups like See & Do, Parkour Dance, Free your Instinct, and other types of grassroots service provision are essential so that these stories aren’t drowned out by all the “hype”.
  • Language
    • There are many ways that you can experience parkour, but if the language we use only gives value to what is bigger, higher, faster, then we devalue other ways that parkour is experienced. I’ve seen and heard people at competitions, including announcers/commentators say that these people (the competition participants) are the “best” at parkour. Talented surely, but competitions are a very specific interpretation of parkour training and do not accurately represent the diversity involved in our practice. Our language should reflect that.
  • Format
    • I’m generalising, but the formats and challenges (mainly in skill and speed events) escalate in difficulty mostly through increases in height, speed and distance, thus catering more towards taller practitioners. Ultimately, ignoring lower, slower, closer, etc. is likely to reinforce certain characteristics as being more valuable. Two examples:
      • An escalating rail balance challenge at a competition required increases in speed in order to earn the points. Speed on rails is one thing we train, but time and positions on rails are others. Another interpretation of that challenge could then be ‘remain in balance [in this way] for at least [x] amount of time’.
      • While being able to complete a previously unknown challenge first time is one way of measuring adeptness. Being able to repeat that challenge multiple times is another that I would argue is perhaps more “parkour-like”. Instead of higher points being awarded for the quicker you achieve it (e.g. 10, 7, 5), points could be stacked for how many times you demonstrate the ability to overcome the challenge (e.g. 3, 6, 10).
    • For that reason, I think there is an opportunity to diversify the way competition challenges are constructed to better reflect the diversity of how parkour is practised outside of competition. If this isn’t adhered to for whatever reason (e.g. those challenges aren’t fun for viewers), the previous points become even more important.

 

As with parkour, my thoughts have evolved and may continue to do so. My hope is that whatever path parkour travels, the community as a whole is empowered and – though our personal convictions may vary – nobody is selfish in whatever their pursuits may be.

3 Replies to “The evolution of my thoughts on competition”

  1. The major issue I’ve always had is that competition is a definer. Competition sets standards of performance, starts to carve out and define what practice needs to look like, and does overall affect and limit the idea of ‘follow your own path’.

    There is little room for experimental movement.

    As competition becomes bigger, it will inform and direct people as to how they need to practice.

    Plus, we also, as a society, have tendencies towards competitive behaviors because its the easier path. It is harder to engage in something and NOT compete. If there is the option to compete, most people will ultimately direct their practice in that direction, modelling their movements after the movements utilized in competitions, not necessarily after their own explorations/interests/etc.


    At the end of the day I’m not hardcore against competition, but I do think it is important to look at the impact and repercussions of competition on overall practice.

  2. Great points Caitlin.

    As we’ve told each other in the past, these are some of the reasons why it pays to be involved with parkour competitions, so that those who might gloss over these issues can consider them in their administration and delivery.

  3. I firmly believe that competitions really come down to how an individual interprets it and their mindset. If you view the competition as a way to evaluate and benchmark your individual progress while observing how others approach obstacles. It becomes an essential learning experience you would have not otherwise gotten.

    The ranking and tournament aspect really comes down to how the announcers frame it.

    Lastly, there will always be people out there judging you and how you move. Training solo and training in public teaches you to ignore those judgements and just focus on the obstacle in front of you. If you are always thinking about other peoples views of you then you won’t be able to focus. How is that much different in a competition setting? We don’t stop training because we are too scared of what the public may think.

    A competition merely frames judgement in a way. At the end of the day though. The only opinion that matters is your own and how you decide to approach it.

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