It looks like parkour, sounds like parkour, is called parkour... it must be parkour, right?

Wrong.

Over the last few years we have seen a proliferation of parkour or freerunning academies all over the world, fantastic indoor spaces with great equipment, purpose-built structures and bespoke training environments. They’ve become all the rage in some countries, and whole new communities are being introduced to parkour in this fashion, starting indoors and staying indoors. And there is no doubt that moving parkour into a managed space environment has allowed the art to reach thousands more people from entirely new demographics, and made it accessible to huge swathes of the population who just would not even approach the idea of starting parkour in its natural environment.

It’s worked. Perhaps too well, in fact.

An academy is not formed of wood or stone, and isn’t established by any amount of buildings. It certainly isn’t one just because it proclaims itself to be one. An academy is built on the individuals who guide and teach within it, who pass on knowledge and help others learn; those who are actually capable of coaching, who understand that it is a skill and a discipline all of its own, just as intricate and demanding as parkour itself. People are what make an academy what it is; make it something of worth and value to others, to its surrounding community.

Having a structure, a space, a building is not enough. It isn’t anything, in fact. An academy is a body of knowledge and expertise – without that, the grandest facilities in the world are useless. And quite often the best pools of learning and teaching develop far away from the best facilities.

For many years, long before any such thing as a parkour academy was even contemplated, the founders were teaching small groups in France - in Evry, Lisses and Sarcelles: passing on what they had learned, helping others find their own way in a highly personal and private fashion. They did it without being based in buildings, without special equipment or structures, without mats or prepared surfaces. Yet it was a true academy of knowledge, and those lucky enough to practice there gained access to all of that and more.

We do teach indoors, we started it in fact. And indoor training does have its uses, which is why we continue to use it. However, it needs to be done in a balanced fashion. We have always stayed away from relying on bespoke indoor spaces, from specialised ‘parkour centres’, because there is a subtle, yet hugely important qualitative difference between training your movement to adapt to your environment and shaping your environment to fit your movement.

I can’t stress this point enough, and the greatest danger of the advent of such parkour centres is the loss of those core concepts that moulded and forged the discipline in its early years. The concepts of discovery, exploration, adaptation and challenge – finding solutions to problems that arose from a raw and complicated interaction with an environment not designed to be used in that way.  

This isn’t to say that indoor training is a ‘bad thing’, far from it. As mentioned above, it has opened parkour up to a much larger world and brought its considerable benefits to areas of society it would never have otherwise reached. Schools are a prime example, and these and other similar institutions simply would never have opened their doors to parkour instruction if it could not have been delivered in an indoor, managed space.

Using these indoor spaces and bespoke builds as a way to work on specific skills, to condition and work in large groups, to introduce the less-confident amongst us to the concepts of movement and their own potential – fantastic. But training in this way must only ever be a supplement to actual parkour. It must never replace it. And for anyone who takes up the responsibility – and it is a serious responsibility –of teaching parkour to others it must be an imperative to maintain this balance.

Parkour is a concept, an approach to living and training. It has an essence, difficult though that is to define. It’s far more than just an amalgamation of athletic skills, agility and strength training. That essence is found and nurtured best in its natural environment – which is, paradoxically, any environment that was not designed specifically for parkour!  

The point is that if we allow parkour to become focussed on these indoor centres and managed spaces, we condemn it to dilution and an early death. And, worse, we deny those future generations of new practitioners the most powerful benefits and truths that parkour has to offer – that of self-discovery and self-knowledge through applying oneself to the challenge of the unfettered world around us.

Parkour has the power to liberate whatever it touches – from individuals to whole communities. Its essence resonates with something deep inside us, something untamed and adventurous that we are all born with. That has to stay at its heart, no matter what.

Change that, and it doesn’t matter how far you jump, how fluid the motion is, how precise your landings are – it just isn’t parkour anymore.