Why Extreme Sports Aren’t Extreme

Posted by

extreme sport!It’s a very cool title isn’t it: Extreme Sports!

Often seen with a dropped ‘E’ so you get some form of X-treme or X-awesome or x-whatever, because hey, doesn’t that make it even more hardcore, even more cool, even more rebellious? That’s sticks it to The Man, for sure, right? X’s are just bad-ass! But once you’re past the hype, what’s the true substance of these activities? What makes them extreme? And is this label actually completely misplaced?

For most people an ‘extreme sport’ is something fuelled by adrenaline and practiced by risk-junkies looking for the ultimate rush in an attempt to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. Dictionary definitions usually reference extreme sports as any activities perceived as having a high level of inherent danger or risk of serious harm if the skill is performed poorly. Some define them as solo activities requiring highly-specialised equipment and/or remote locations. One research definition by Dr Rhonda Cohen has it as ‘a competitive (comparison or self-evaluative) activity within which the participant is subjected to natural or unusual physical and mental challenges such as speed, height, depth or natural forces and where fast and accurate cognitive perceptual processing may be required for a successful outcome’.[i]

But couldn’t just about any athletic pursuit fit one of those definitions? I’d say dance puts the body through some natural physical and mental challenges that require accurate cognitive perceptual processing. So does rugby, gymnastics too. And if we’re talking inherent danger then horse riding has to be the number one extreme sport with its 200 deaths a year in the UK – far more than any other sport or physical activity, extreme or otherwise. Yet how may would describe horse-riding as an extreme sport? Not many, I’d wager.

Mindful Movement

traceystormSo I think it’s worth questioning the use of the title ‘extreme’ when it comes to the disciplines it’s commonly ascribed to such as parkour, skydiving, rock-climbing, etc. It’s worth a review, because maybe the common perception is a little off. Or a lot.

My own experience of training in parkour – often seen as a pure adrenaline-junkie activity due to the (incorrectly) perceived risk of danger – has been nothing like the common view of what an ‘extreme sport’ should be; on the contrary, I would say parkour – and likely most other activities stuck with the ‘extreme’ label – requires a holistic, focused integration of the individual’s body and mind to carry it out effectively, which results in it being more akin to meditation or mindful movement than to any form of adrenaline rush. And I think that view is shared by the vast majority of serious parkour practitioners.

You have to understand that I’m referring to actual parkour practitioners here: not the types that throw themselves off rooftops or hang off cranes in an attempt to imitate what they think parkour is. As with many things, just because someone says they are doing parkour does not mean it is so. There are adrenaline junkies out there and they’ll get their kicks however they can.

901709_723947537633544_945313241_o (Medium)But the true parkour community couldn’t be more different from those types. In my experience of meeting tens of thousands of traceurs in over thirty countries in my career to date I’ve seen it become one of the most dedicated, sophisticated, considered and competent movement communities in the world. Period.

These are mindful movers, diligent in their training and committed to achieving excellence, self-knowledge and mastery. They manage risks well, just as all athletes have to, and become extremely good at judging what they are and aren’t capable of. The movement challenges they face require extremely fine motor skills, high levels of balance, accuracy, proprioception, coordination and spatial awareness. Exactly the kinds of attributes that adrenal surges interfere with, in fact. Think back to the last time you felt that rush of adrenaline from fear or anger, for example: your hands probably shook and wouldn’t stay still, your heart rate skyrocketed, your thinking blurred and your breathing came fast and shallow. All things we don’t want during high quality movement practice.

No, to perform the complex-dynamic movement tasks of parkour, or indeed any sophisticated movement discipline, we need to be calm, centred, controlled, balance. Focused. We need alignment between body and mind. We aren’t seeking an adrenaline rush, we’re seeking an inner stillness. A flow state. A zone. That’s not recklessness: that’s mindfulness.

And in fact when you get down to the chemicals involved here, it isn’t adrenaline that makes these activities enjoyable at all; it’s the increased levels of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin which is a result of the high level of physical exertion in the practice of these pursuits. These are the ‘pleasure’ chemicals our brain can reward us with, and they can be activated in myriads of ways, many of which do not rely on risk, danger or fear.

Make the Extreme into Standard

I have friends across the entire spectrum of the adventure sports (perhaps a better term for that broad and diverse group of outdoor activities often mis-labelled ‘extreme’), from wing-suit skydivers to rock-climbers to hang-gliders to big-wave surfers, and I can confidently say that not one of them considers what they do to be ‘extreme’. All would be far more likely to comment on the deep calm they access while in the midst of their activity, and the fact that it brings about a quality of clarity and focus and ‘present-ness’ that can be otherwise difficult to reach. They would talk of their discipline as a form of moving meditation, a state of true, integrated flow that produces a sense of well-being, peace and harmony.

But here’s the rub: only those who actually experience this state of mind will understand why ‘extreme sports’ are nothing of the sort. Casual observers will only ever see the risk, the perceived impossibility, and therefore the imagined painful consequences if they were to ‘have a go at that’. And so the label sticks. The reality, however, is that time and training bring the inconceivable quite within our reach, and render the ‘extreme’ simply standard.

It’s all just a question of practice.

[i]  http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/view/creators/Cohen=3ARhonda=3A=3A.html>(2012) The relationship between personality, sensation seeking, reaction time and sport participation: evidence from drag racers, sport science students and archers. PhD thesis, Middlesex University.



For more information on parkour see http://www.parkourgenerations.com


  1. whilst i understand for the most part what you are saying. i am not understanding the purpose of this article. what are trying to do? are you simply voicing your opinion or are you wanting the change in the name or such? i can understand the sensation of parkour that you do and i understand that your friends may be extreme sportsman as well. but i do not believe what you are saying. the problem isnt the name but the conditions of the sports. river rafting down a thundering river with high drop falls and huge speeds is alot more ‘extreme’ than the same but on a slow calm river right? they are both the same sport to most but to some only the first is considered ‘extreme’. snowboarding, surfing, downhill mountainbiking and even parkour come under this category. part truly ‘extreme; and part not. sky diving and wing suit riding, base jumping ARE EXTREME. there is not question. the height, the speed and like you say the feeling, mostly exostatic make these extreme. the fact these are safe now does not take away from the fact these are more dangerous in normal settings than any other sport. you are always at risk in these sports even under situations of control. most injuries and death that come from other non extreme sports are normally with fault of someone. horse riding isnt dangerous on its own. its only when doing it with others means death.

    liam macdonald – snowboarder


  2. Hi Liam, thanks for your thoughts! You say ‘the fact is these are more dangerous’ – actually, the ‘facts’ disagree with you. As I state, the most dangerous sport in the UK by a long, long way, is horse riding, whether doing it by oneself or with others. Statistically. Parkour is way down the list in terms of injuries per capita. Far fewer than rugby. So the ‘facts’ are that parkour, for example, is not more dangerous than those sports – hence if that’s your definition of ‘extreme’, you need to be labelling those sports ‘extreme’. Parkour may LOOK dangerous to the untrained eye, but that’s because that untrained observer doesn’t understand the difference between risk and danger. 80% of all runners are injured in some way – so does that make running ‘extreme’, as it is clearly the sport with the highest injury rate per capita? My point is that the term ‘extreme sport’ implies a certain need for risk on the part of the practitioners, and I don’t think that’s what drives most such individuals – not in my experience anyway. I skydive, I ride motorbikes, I’m a professional parkour athlete, I have fought in combative disciplines; yet I do not do these things for the risk, nor do I consider myself at all ‘extreme’. Quite the opposite. And no, I’m not wanting to change any names! I’m just pointing out that the label ‘extreme’ gives a very skewed perception of these ‘adventure-based activities’ (perhaps a better term?) which is probably misleading and sensationalist. Certainly it’s at best simply inaccurate when it comes to injury rates.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s