Running free: How parkour is boosting the confidence of vulnerable young people

Parkour, also known as free-running, is as good for your mental wellbeing as it is for your physical health – and no Bond-style leaps across skyscrapers required!

Remember the opening scene of Daniel Craig’s first James Bond film Casino Royale? He pursues baddie Mollaka onto the steel frame of a building in construction and the chase culminates with a daring leap onto a crane. The baddie was played by Sébastien Foucan, one of the founding fathers of a school of movement called parkour. With what looks like impressive ease, he scales steel girders intent only on escape. He doesn’t hesitate for a second to take seemingly impossible jumps, gauging the distance precisely and landing faultlessly, while operating at a nauseating height and with James Bond in relentless pursuit.

What looks fabulous onscreen, however, is more than just clever stuntmanship. Parkour is not just a current trend for uber-cool urban youngsters; it has at its heart a very particular outlook that has the potential to bring about a profound mental transformation. While parkour uses running, jumping and climbing to move around and navigate obstacles in any given environment, training physical strength and dexterity, some argue that it is much more a state of mind rather than a set of actions.

The link between the physical body and mental and emotional states is increasingly being investigated scientifically and there are many ancient practices, such as yoga, that explore it. Those who practice parkour are known as ‘traceurs’, from the French ‘to trace’, and they constantly challenge their own perceived limitations, confront obstacles and figure out ways to overcome them. It is easy to imagine that this would lead to positive psychological changes.

Jade Shaw is artistic director of ParkourDance, a new company that uniquely combines creative dance skills with parkour. She wants to use the transformative quality of parkour and dance in workshops, courses and performance projects, where participants learn to engage with their environment in a whole new way. They find new approaches to getting from point A to point B with grace, ease and swiftness.

“Parkour is not just a current trend for uber-cool urban youngsters; it has at its heart a very particular outlook that has the potential to bring about a profound mental transformation”

“We believe that the mind can be influenced and strengthened through the physical body by using expressive disciplines such as parkour and dance,” says Jade, adding that the practice addresses peoples’ personal challenges, such as fear of heights or low self-esteem, by teaching them to measure and take appropriate risks.

Jade wants a diverse range of people to benefit, regardless of age or ability. In fact, she’s planning on piloting a parkour scheme for people over the age of 60 at Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist Centre in London.

One youth project that the company was recently asked to deliver takes place at a pupil referral unit in East London. Along with her colleague Jacob, Jane teaches a group of seven teenage boys with a view to improving their confidence, self-trust and social skills. The sessions are organised by Green Candle Dance Company on behalf of Tower Hamlets dance consortium with support from Tower Hamlets Arts and Music Education Service (THAMES).

Green Candle’s education and community manager Chantal Bardouille says:  “We chose ParkourDance Ltd for this project because they provide action-packed, fun and engaging sessions for young people that improves their health and wellbeing.”

ParkourDance is also working on devising a new programme: Motivate, Inspire, Transform. The 10-week course will target vulnerable young people and in weekly sessions use themes such as identity, fears and obstacles to work with participants on building motivation, self-belief and strength.

The aim is that through parkour and dance training, the participants’ body awareness and self-expression will be amplified, having a positive impact on their confidence and, in the long-term, make it easier to negotiate everyday hurdles such as getting jobs and building healthy relationships. Jade doesn’t expect it to be some sort of miracle cure-all, but says that “if one of them remembers something from this 10 years down the line and it positively affects a choice they make, that would be great. That’s what matters.”