Why does Parkour attract so many neurodivergent people?
I would like to start off by saying I am no expert in neuro-diversion. Everything I mention here is from my personal experience after being associated with parkour for over 8 years now. However, in this issue, I am going to talk about what attracts neurodiverse people to parkour as opposed to other sports. I have noticed this seems to be a fair pool of parkour people but by no means an obvious majority. Parkour is for everyone no matter how capable you are physically or mentally people will always welcome you with open arms when it comes to parkour.
Let's start by looking at what neurodiverse actually means. “The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders).”
Basically having a slightly different brain, and therefore behaviours, to the majority of the people within that culture. Because these people have different behaviours and their brains won't tick the same way others expect them to, they often get regarded as perhaps less intelligent or less capable than a neurotypical person. This is categorically not the case. Because their brains tick in a different way, they have different needs compared to the ‘typical.’ A lot of times if they get it wrong or can’t listen to simple instructions a neurodiverse person may become really discouraged and disappointed in themselves. But there are always ways to meet their needs by approaching them in a different way. I’ll talk about how to do that later, but first, let us look at some symptoms of common neurodiverse conditions.
Autism is a disorder where one may have trouble with social communication and interaction and restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests. For example, some symptoms relating to the person's social skills would be:
Failure to make eye contact,
Delayed language skills,
Anxiety stress or worry.
Other symptoms regarding the restricted/repetitive behaviour would be;
Getting upset by minor changes,
Having obsessive interests
Having to follow certain routes.
These are the main symptoms I want to point out for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) Because these are the ones I pick up on when training with someone or coaching them. Once I picked up on these symptoms I started to notice it more and more especially with my friends who share the same passion for parkour as me as well as the kids I coach and I noticed that the poole of neurodiverse people who enjoy parkour is so much bigger than what I first thought. I started to think why that is. Why are there so many people with ASD enjoying parkour and not football, rugby or basketball? Then I started to connect the dots.
As I always say ‘Parkour is whatever you make it’. By that I mean there are no rules, no one way to vault an obstacle no ‘correct’ way to do a jump. (Obviously, there is an optimal way anatomically but from a creative standpoint I mean) It’s a way to express your thoughts physically without being held back by regulations, competitions or restrictive factors. When we look at those restrictive behaviour symptoms I mentioned above, having to follow certain routes may mean a person with ASD may not want to climb a wall a certain way. 10 athletes attempt to reach the top of the wall 9 neurotypical all follow the seemingly most efficient and easiest way up (let's say a wall pop or dyno) the ASD athlete however might not feel comfortable doing the wall pop because it doesn't make the brain tick. The neurodiverse athlete may decide they want to attempt it as a static climb because they enjoy low-impact controlled movement. But guess what? All 10 of them got up and in actual fact, the 1 that did the challenge in a different way will be praised for their creativity instead of criticized because it was an ‘incorrect’ technique. In competitions, creativity is an important category of someone's style. Creativity relates to how the athlete uses the course or spot. So rather than taking the most popular route with the biggest gaps, going over to the smaller part of the set-up and interacting with it in an unseen way can really boost your profile as an athlete. I have absolutely no idea about whether or not these athletes have ASD or another neurodiverity I will mention in this issue but… Three athletes that spring to mind when it comes to being praised for their creativity in following different routes -
Kevin Franzen, @kevinfranzen01
Joseph Marx, @Joseph_Marx
Josh Blackburn. @JoshuaStorror
These three are specialists in their own way of movement and often we see them doing things no one would ever even imagine themselves. As I said, I have no idea if they move that way because of ASD or if they are neurotypical and work hard on finding different lines, but it seems to me from my experience that people with neurodiversity find it easier to find their style much quicker than a neurotypical person who wants to be good at everything. (With the exception of Marx who I believe made a video on how his autism affects his training in a positive way. If I can find the link I'll link it) If you aren't familiar with these athletes please check them out especially if you are struggling with creative movement or are feeling discouraged or restricted by imaginary boundaries you may feel from parkour. In this way, parkour meets the needs of the different brain much more than, let's say, gymnastics. 9 neurotypical gymnasts walk into a bar… competition (No riskay jokes here today folks ;)) and 1 neurodiverse gymnast also enters the high-bar comp. Throughout training, you are always told everything has to fit a very specific regime from the judging criteria and any deviation from this will get punished. If the dismount isn’t perfectly straight or not stuck the way the criteria demands you’ll probably lose and feel like you're not adequate enough. Parkour on the other hand sees off-axis rotations, landing sideways and comboing out of big tricks as something to be praised or desired. This will leave someone feeling elated because of their differences rather than feeling isolated and targeted because of their differences.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD is a condition that affects someone's ability to focus for short periods of time. It also affects other things but the attention deficit is the main symptom. Someone with ADHD may experience
being unable to sit still, especially in calm or quiet surroundings.
being unable to concentrate on tasks.
excessive physical movement.
Being in an environment like a classroom where you are required to still and focus on the teacher is really hard for people with ADHD. Because of the hyperactivity, a more physical environment where they have to be up on their feet will be much more appealing to someone with ADHD. So again I asked myself, why do we get so many kids with ADHD coming to parkour saying that they didn’t enjoy the other sport they were doing? One example I can think of from the top of my head is a student who has recently joined. He is very talented in his movement and physically very capable. He used to do Ballet and Diving but has left those and found a new love for Parkour. Knowing this student has ADHD I found out a bit more about why these other sports weren’t appealing to him. There are two main reasons these other sports won't appeal to neurodiverse people. One, the rigorous repetition of slow controlled movements over and over again that aren't challenging the brain will become uninteresting and more of a chore than anything else. And two, Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). RSD is when you experience severe emotional pain because of a failure or feeling rejected. This condition is linked to ADHD and experts suspect it happens due to differences in brain structure. The student in question was actually rejected from the diving squad because he refused to jump from the ten meters. This rejection and objective scoring of insufficiency made me realise why parkour is so attractive to people with this disorder. Let’s take another popular sport, football. Football along with plenty of other mainstream sports will score you numerically against your opposition. When I was a kid I would lose 16,17,18- 0 every Saturday morning. And it left me feeling broken every time I’d drive home. I’d be thinking about how we we 18 times worse than the other team and the next time we play them we’d be 12 times worse than them. Whereas, Parkour only scores you against yourself. It makes you look at your ability in a completely different way. You aren't playing against another person you're playing against yourself. You have to try and be better than you were before. Not better than the other team is now. Because if the first game we lost by 18 then we lost by 12, we’ve improved by six goals but it makes it seem we are still not good enough when in actual fact the progression and that six-goal improvement is something to be acknowledged and praised. Which gets highlighted much more in Parkour.
This is all well and good knowing how Parkour can help these people but what can you do as a coach or parent who wants to get through to this person but your not quite sure how? Here are some things I've found useful.
Dont overexplain. The longer you take to verbally give tips and instructions the less effective it will be for this person. Give the main tips in short bullet point phrases. “Up!, Tuck, Spot” There is no use in sitting them down and explaining the anatomy of a body and showing them that pushing your hips forward will allow for a more stretched body increasing your power and height and also affecting you….. Zzzzzzzz BORING! There are three main ways of learning ‘Verbal’ ‘Visual’ and ‘Kinesthetic’ Verbal learning for a neurodivergent person is like talking to a brick wall. You are much better off using visual and kinesthetic. Give them a visual demonstration exaggerating the parts you want them to focus on and let them figure it out. One student I had recently was a prime example of this. We were doing two-step 180’s and I was trying my best to explain how much easier it is when you put your second step on. I showed him what I meant multiple times but he kept doing the same thing over and over and over. Just as I was about to stop him something made me wait a few more goes before I said anything and just through repetition and running at that wall nearly a hundred times, He got it. That's when I realised the best way to get him to lean is to let him figure it out himself. This makes me feel rather redundant as a coach because I have to fight the urge to tell him and show him again and again because he has to learn by feeling.
Another quick pattern I've picked up on is backflips. I know several people who are neurodiverse who all have had the same problem with backflips. They just can't commit to them. There’s something about a backflip that feels wrong to them. After gaining more knowledge on the symptoms and having conversations with these athletes, I drew the conclusion that their brain is refusing to let that person deviate from what they know is comfortable because they are upset with a slight change or want to stick to their own path. This has led to them pursuing the things they enjoy more in parkour (off-axis flips, vaults, conditioning) and the progression they make in those areas is remarkable. By understanding it’s the feeling of going backwards they need to become familiar with, and knowing that they can physically do it but not mentally, trying to relate it to different tricks that they do understand may be a much more effective way to go about it. For example, doing a backwards roll of the box allows them to get the feeling of going backwards and spotting the floor so when they are in the air, the brain won't get upset because of the change and bailout, the brain will link the movement to something it knows already and the fear of them will slowly disappear.
When it comes to parkour I feel like you can always gain that feeling of accomplishment and progression every time you train even if you’re plateauing or getting worse because you’re comparing yourself to the start of the session. If I ever do speed competitions in classes I will give the time to the students and tell them to remember it. It gives them the feeling of responsibility and also gives them a unique score as opposed to me saying ‘We got a new fastest time! Everyone has to try and beat 21.73 seconds!” The goal for this way of scoring is that when they have their second go, 9/10 they get a faster time than their first run. So although they didn't get the fastest time or they were an entire minute slower than the fastest person in the class, they can feel accomplished by knowing that they put the effort in to beat their own time. This is how parkour can accommodate RSD ADHD and ASD. This is why we see so many neurodivergent athletes in parkour