Why Extreme Sports Aren’t Extreme
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.
So 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.
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