As you stand there on the concrete wall ready to jump to another wall a few feet in front of you, you start to notice your breath getting more shallow. You notice your heart rate is going up, you have a knot in the pit of your stomach, and your body is resisting the urge to perform the task at hand. “Should you go for it?” “Will you make the distance?” “Will your feet get there safely?” These questions and more are racing through your head. In an attempt to calm yourself down you walk away from the challenge for a few minutes only to feel even more anxious and nervous when you come back to it. You think to yourself, “Should I commit to this jump? Should I take more time to calm myself down, or should I throw caution to the wind and just go for it?”
Your responses to stressful situations are controlled by the interactions of two parallel systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These systems work together to allow your body to respond quickly to danger and get you out of unsafe situations quickly, and to let your body recover after there is no longer danger present. Both of these systems are constantly active in the body, but the level of activation of either system depends on how stressful a situation you find yourself in. Sometimes you will deliberately put yourself into a scary or stressful situation while practicing parkour, so understanding how these systems can affect your thinking and emotions has the potential to both help your training and other aspects of your life. Thousands of years ago, the sympathetic nervous system evolved to allow humans to run away from lions, or to allow them to chase down prey while hunting. Increased activation of this system is triggered by a stressful or scary occurrence or situation, and results in a chemical called adrenaline being released at high levels throughout the body. The purpose of this system is to allow the body to function at an extremely high level physically for a short period of time when life is at stake. It also temporarily turns off all physiological processes that are not immediately necessary for survival.
In our daily lives, we do not have to run away from lions, or hunt for food. We most often experience adrenaline release now in the form of so-called “adrenaline rushes” when we are participating in a sport, taking an important test at school, or have a big speech to give at work. These activities are not the types of situations the sympathetic nervous system evolved to respond to. So, since the system was not designed to address these types of situations, it does not handle them well. For instance, large amounts of long-term exposure to adrenaline can result in damage to your immune system, poor sleep, and psychological conditions including depression and anxiety. Additionally, those adrenaline rushes that you may feel while training do not necessarily help performance in parkour or other sports. Some of the possible effects of adrenaline are a hyper-focus that leads to tunnel vision, inability to notice when you are injured, less attention to physical sensation, and reduced awareness of your surroundings. Practicing parkour well, and staying safe while doing it, means you must pay strict attention to your body and your surroundings. If you do not, or your ability to pay attention to or perceive these things is impaired, the result could be a bad day of training or more serious, like a broken arm.
When faced with a stressful situation, what is the best course of action to calm the body and mind down? Should you make yourself completely calm and relaxed? When being in stressful and potentially risky situations having a healthy amount of fear is good for you. Fear is the age old way of our body telling us to pay attention to something. Too little of it and we may find ourselves in situations where the outcome might not be in our favor. Too much of it and we are overwhelmed and reactive and may do things we did not mean to. In the book “Rise of Superman” written by author Steven Kotler, he mentions a state of mind a person can go into where action and awareness merge together, where you perform the task at hand seamlessly and effortlessly. He talks about flow in the context of action & adventure sports where it shows up almost on a regular basis. Action adventure sport athletes often need to be able to tap into this state to accomplish superhuman feats of skill and dexterity. Kotler talks about a challenge/skill ratio that needs to be met in order for the individual to experience a flow state. This means the challenge presented to you needs to be ever so slightly higher than the skills needed to complete it. In the context of parkour if the challenge you are working on is too easy you will not get into flow, but if it is too difficult you will be too stressed and won’t enter into this state.
The heightened sense of awareness is a well known phenomenon. It’s referenced in taoism as Satori and the Shaolin Monks as Chan, where it is used to enhance their physical mastery. How can we achieve this in our training? By being calm and collected. Being calm, focusing on breathing, and being in the present will allow us to achieve this heightened sense of being. This “hyper focus” is almost the polar opposite of adrenaline which dilutes our senses instead of increasing them.
In summary, our bodies reaction to danger isn’t always going to keep us safe. We constantly put ourselves in danger, and it is our responsibility to not let adrenaline take over in those instances. Training too calm will not keep you focused on what it is you are actually doing, while being too scared and stressed will make you not be able to think clearly. If you want to do a scary challenge in the gym or somewhere outside, the best course of action is to take a step back, breath, analyze and commit. As an athlete it is your responsibility to combat the negative effects of adrenaline and keep yourself safe.