The physiological impacts of fear training in parkour
Many times in life, we use the opposite of one thing to define another. In order to best understand how fear relates to our training, and why it is worth training our fear-response, we need to take a moment to discuss something called Emotional Intelligence. The best way to begin is to tell you a story called the Dragon and the Watermelon:
Once upon a time there was a village off the beaten path. A great warrior passed through this town, and noticed that all of the villagers were weak and frail. He asked what was wrong.. and they said there was a dragon in their field, and so they could not collect their food and were starving.
The warrior said to the people “Don’t fear! I am a great warrior, and I will slay your dragon for you”. The warrior headed out to the field, and in the middle of the field sat a watermelon. He laughed to himself, and returned to the village. He told the villagers, “Don’t be silly, that’s not a dragon, it’s a watermelon.” Afraid and confused, the townspeople killed him.
Some time later, another warrior passes through the town. He sees starving people barely surviving and asks what’s wrong. Once again the village people say: “there is an evil dragon in our field. We cannot go out and get food”. The warrior assures them he can slay the dragon, and heads out to the field only to discover the same watermelon. He also returned to the village to say that a watermelon is all they fear, and they killed that warrior too.
Some time later, a warrior monk goes through the town, where people lay on the ground dying, starving. He asks the elders of the village what’s wrong, and they tell him of the dragon. The warrior monk goes out to the field, and sees the watermelon. He smiles to himself, and returns to the village. “I stayed your dragon”, he said.
The village celebrated, and collected their crops and regained their health and vitality. The warrior monk stayed in that village just long enough to teach them the difference between a watermelon, and a dragon.
This story is a simple representation of Emotional Intelligence. EI is the uncommon ability to operate from a level of deeper and greater understanding of yourself and the people around you. Through personal awareness, knowledge, and understanding, your actions and behaviors are more intentional and helpful to the world around you.
The Marshmallow Study
The academic world has had a long-standing study on this concept of Emotional Intelligence, affectionately known as the Marshmallow Study. In the 60’s and 70’s, a guy named Walter Mischel did a study at Standford looking at the responses of children when offered a treat. In this study, children were seated in front of a marshmallow or a cookie and told that they could (a) eat that first marshmallow now or (b) wait and receive a second one later. (1)
This simple exercise, the having to make a decision between (a) and (b), triggered a very important part of the child’s brain known as the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex helps you make sense of your thoughts, guiding you between good vs bad, better vs best; It helps you understand consequences of your actions and anticipate outcomes. Basically, it allows you to make a conscious, reason-based choice that accounts for all the factors in play and (hopefully) leads to the best possible outcome.--I.g. Back to the Marshmallows.... Even though the children wanted to take the treat, some knew that if they disciplined themselves, they would most likely receive something better, later.
Even more interesting is that the study found children who were able to delay their instincts, and engage their pre-frontal cortex by waiting to eat the first treat, were proven to be more successful later in life.
The high degree to which we can each exercise this ability, to reason and use our emotional intelligence with ourselves and others, is something uniquely human.
All of this is quite wonderful, and we would all like to have lots of Emotional Intelligence so that we could delay our need for gratification, increase our ability to communicate and help others (like the warrior monk), and be more successful people (like the children in the study). Unfortunately, something holds us back from exercising our abilities... and it is the same part of the brain that stops us from doing scary jumps in parkour!
The amygdala is a part of what we call the ‘reptilian’ brain. It is a central, primitive area of the brain that controls many things, including our impulses-- impulses that, for example, would drive a child to eat that marshmallow right away rather than wait for the bigger pay out.
The influence of the amygdala is best seen in the behaviors of other animals.
Imagine slowly walking to up to a regular, every day squirrel with your hand out stretched, smile on your face, hoping to pet it. If that squirrel had true emotional intelligence, it would probably be able to perceive your friendliness, and, in turn, approach you for the likely affection and possible food it would receive. However, the amygdala alone completely drives the instincts of the squirrel, and so, instead, it runs away out of fear that we are a threat.
This desire to flee in the face of a threat is present in humans as well. The phrase we sometimes use to describe that response is “Fight or Flight” (and “Freeze”, though it is typically omitted).
The amygdala is our own, personal expert at identifying threats and driving an appropriate immediate reaction to deal with it. Over the course of our lives, it stores all of our negative experiences and emotions, and then uses them in the future to make quick decisions in situations that have a similar pattern.
It is the reason why most children who struggle with math early on, hate math for the rest of their lives. Or, why after you taste a food you hate, you react poorly to it. It is also the reason we anxiously cross the street when a young man in a hoodie with his head down at night is walking towards us on the sidewalk. All of these actions are caused by the amygdala linking a bad experience (whether directly or indirectly experienced) to a current experience, and triggering a very real, physiological response that comes out as fight, flight, or freeze.
We experience this fight, flight, and freeze in Parkour as well. For most of us, we freeze (or hesitate) when we come across a movement that our brain perceives as a threat to our health, or a challenge we have faced before and failed. Yes, we may know that we are capable of the jump, but the brain stops us because it has stored negative experiences link to our current experience. It is a little bit like an overly concerned credit card company that puts a freeze on our account every time we travel a few minutes outside of our home town.
We need to take the time and effort to battle and overcome the instincts of the amygdala. We need to operate from our pre-frontal cortex and reason our way through a difficult jump or scary challenge. By doing this, not only are we going to succeed in our challenge, building more skill and confidence in our movement, we are also, more importantly, re-wiring our brain and developing better emotional intelligence.
Through this process, of confronting jumps, our selves, and our fear, we teach our mind to positively, thoughtfully, and proactively manage potentially dangerous situations, rather than react instinctively. We learn to turn off our automatic negative reactions, and we turn on our manual, reasoning process.
This physiological change does not just affect our movement, either--it cascades into all of the other actions in our lives. In essence, we become like the squirrels in Madison Square Garden, who have learned to trust and feed from the people who approach them. We will learn to control our amygdala and ensure our actions are all taken with intention.
Lastly, as parkour coaches, it is our responsibility to help our students develop not only as athletes, but as people. Taking our students through this fear training process, by putting them in positions where they are required to control their response and overcome their amygdala, we allow them the opportunity to develop the benefits discussed above. This is why we should train to manage our fear in parkour practice. As Walter Mischel has proven, it leads to be being a more successful person in life.
Extra Reading & Resources
(1) Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification.
Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B.; Raskoff Zeiss, Antonette
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 21(2), Feb 1972, 204-218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0032198
The Marshmallow Test