Parkour: More than meets the eye

Picture: The Courier
Picture: The Courier

At the end of 2013 I decided to take part in a class with Glasgow Parkour Coaching (GPC) and afterwards spoke to GPC founder Chris Grant to find out more about the discipline. 

It was a typically nippy Monday evening in Glasgow’s West End as I stood waiting at Kelvinbridge subway station.

I had been told to dress in suitable attire which included grey jogging bottoms, trainers and a hoody. As the moments passed more and more people wearing similar outfits appeared.

It may all sound very sinister but in fact it was perfectly harmless as we were all there for the same reason; parkour.

Eventually we were met by coach Chris Grant, who immediately told off the others in the group for not saying hello to me.

“If you see someone waiting five yards away from you in jogging bottoms it is likely they are here for the same reason as you,” he said.

Chris, 30, is a former cocktail bartender who in 2008 swapped life behind a bar to establish Glasgow Parkour Coaching (GPC).

For those who are not familiar, parkour is a holistic self-bettering discipline where those taking part use their surroundings as obstacles which they then attempt to overcome.

It combines both physical and mental strength and is mostly non-competitive. Perched on a wall he spoke passionately about the roots of the discipline:

“It originated in France in the 80s; there was a bunch of young guys in two of the suburbs in France who knew each other through family.

“They started moving around a lot outside, and it initiated with this idea of giving each other really crazy strength challenges and exploring the question of what it really means to be strong,” he said excitedly.

“For example they ran to Paris and back which I think was 40 miles.

“From there that turned into can you go from here to there without touching the floor and from that the jumps and more gymnastic movements originated.” He paused and chuckled.

“Yeah, it was quite a long time ago now.”

Despite starting parkour nine years ago at the age of 21 Chris admits he was not from a sporty background.

However with parkour this is completely irrelevant.

He explains this is one of the unique aspects of the discipline as your sporting background or physique is not an important factor.

Instead you train to your own abilities and set personal goals.

The wide range of classes available at GPC is a testament to that.

On top of that Chris was vocal with regards to the numerous benefits people can gain from taking part.

“There are obviously physical benefits; your training is going to make you stronger and fitter so long as you practice properly.

“I think parkour gives you a really good sense of confidence and adventure which is just a great thing to have.

“It is something that everyone has when they’re young and you grow out of it which is a bit of a shame.

“Parkour has found a way to regain that confidence but it is a bit more methodical and has training behind it.

“With that comes a general confidence to face challenges outside parkour. If you can bring that into your life then you know it can help you to move forward.”

The discipline has developed massively over the past couple of decades with the UK and France being what Chris describes as the “spiritual homes of parkour.”

He was also very quick to promote Glasgow as a great place to train.

“The Glasgow community has been around for a long time so we’ve had a lot of visitors which means people are relatively aware of the spots,” he says.

“There is a real abundance of good training locations and because Glasgow is quite small it makes everything so accessible, I mean you get off a train anywhere in Glasgow and you can be at a spot within 15 minutes.”

Chris seemed frustrated that although parkour has been granted more exposure recently, the media often misrepresent the discipline and tar it with the same brush as extreme sports.

Therefore, he was adamant that the only way to understand the true essence of parkour was for me to take part.

“I think it’s just the fact that it focuses on the spectacle, and it is quite easy to lump it in with extreme sports where they’ve got that bigger is better attitude.

“That’s the trouble the media have had with it, it is a very easy association to make,” he declares.

“Unfortunately that means a lot of the spirit of it gets lost or people turn up for classes and get something quite different from what they expect.”

Guilt immediately flooded my body as that is exactly how I perceived parkour; as people jumping down stairs, off walls or from one bollard to another.

Suddenly I didn’t know what to expect as I stood in a circle of 12 individuals of varying ages, all of which were dressed in grey jogging bottoms of some description.

What struck me first of all was how physically demanding parkour was.

After jogging to our warm up destination, the Adam Smith Building at Glasgow University, Chris then led a stretching session before moving onto quadruped.

This involved a series of exercises where only your feet and hands touched the ground.

It is used to build up strength and endurance in the muscles you use during parkour.

“If anyone’s knees touch the ground everyone starts again.

Keep smiling! If you aren’t smiling you aren’t doing it properly,” he shouted.

What may have appeared as a smile on my face was in fact an expression of gritted teeth and embarrassment that the harsh gravelly ground was proving too much for my apparently feminine hands.

However, after this we soon moved onto the main part of the training session which saw the group jog to the next location at the hill of the university library.

During which we practiced jumping handrails, which was surprisingly difficult when twinned with various twisting movements.

Whilst this was happening Chris was leading a more experienced group in jumping across a set of thinner handrails.

His main passion may have been parkour; however it was not until teaming up with National Theatre Scotland (NTS) for a series of projects that Chris was able to establish GPC.

“GPC and NTS have a long history.

When we first started doing parkour, and before we were a coaching organisation, NTS got in touch with us back in 2008.

“They were doing a community project in Port Glasgow and were looking for a way to engage with young guys.

“They offered us our first opportunity to teach and the day that project finished was the day I was able to quit my job and launch GPC.

“Since then we have done a few projects with them, mainly around that idea of community engagement.

“Young boys are notorious in particular for being really hard to engage with, so parkour seems to be addressing that.”

As he describes the effect parkour can have on the most unlikely of participants, it is apparent just how passionately Chris believes in the discipline.

It is easy to see why anyone passing it off as simply doing jumps and stunts in the street would irk him.

To him parkour is much more; it builds confidence and on top of that is an engagement tool.

Through collaborating with NTS he and GPC took on a project called “Jump.”

It saw them go to Easterhouse and Fife in an attempt to involve young males in physical theatre through parkour.

“It was the dream project we always discussed with NTS and was about engaging with young guys and allowing them to tell their stories.

“We met 900 boys originally and we whittled it down to a cast, but the first few times we met these guys they were all battering lumps out of each other and shouting at us.

“But by the end of it we had them doing contemporary dance on a stage in front of peers.  

“It was a huge transformation and I think you can do that with anyone using parkour if you address it the right way.”

More recently Chris has been branching out and leading parkour activities at two youth circus companies in Glasgow.

He is very clued up on the growth of parkour worldwide and is attempting to replicate it’s emergence in other circus companies.

“GPC is working with Bright Night International and Aerial Edge who are two circus companies from Glasgow.

“We got a grant from the Commonwealth Cultural Fund to start a Commonwealth Youth Circus.

“We now have 18 elite performers and they are doing various specialisms in circus.

“Our involvement is that we are delivering all the parkour sessions, we’re also a little bit involved in the theatrical side of it and we’re heading up all the horrible fitness training.”

With a strong infrastructure in place parkour is an activity that Chris is confident will continue to grow throughout Scotland.

The formation of the first ever Scottish university parkour club at Glasgow Caledonian University in October 2013 highlights the increasing recognition and popularity of the discipline.

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