Parkour brings confidence on by leaps and bounds

21st August 2015 at 01:00
How the sport can help pupils to overcome educational obstacles

Kieran Orr is standing on a 10ft ledge, preparing to execute a flip off a daunting precipice for the very first time. As the 14-year-old gulps and tries to forget what could go wrong, he recognises the fear - it's the same feeling he gets before delivering a presentation in English.

Since parkour was introduced at St Joseph's Academy in Kilmarnock in January, it has transformed the confidence levels of a group of 13- and 14-year-old boys. And the benefits are evident well beyond the gym hall.

Parkour is an urban movement that started in France and exploded in popularity after featuring in the vertiginous opening scenes of Daniel Craig's James Bond debut, Casino Royale. The sport is vaunted for the mental toughness it nurtures as much as the obvious boost to physical fitness.

`Hard time fitting in'

St Joseph's 10-week project involved 15 boys leaving timetabled classes for two hours each Tuesday to learn parkour. The students were selected because they "had a hard time fitting in with the set curriculum", had "social issues" or would benefit from working in a group, said head of PE Andrew Boyle.

Some boys hadn't even heard of parkour and not all of them were particularly sporty. They started with the basics and, only two months later, provided the spectacular opening to a dance show watched by hundreds of people. Next month, they will star in the country's biggest education showpiece: the Scottish Learning Festival.

The unveiling of the students' new-found skills must have given local health and safety officers palpitations. During the East Ayrshire Dance Festival, a 700-strong audience at Kilmarnock's Grand Hall watched a four-minute film of the boys leaping over and around well-known local landmarks before scampering into the hall.

When the film ended, the lights went up to reveal the boys standing on two balconies at the side of the stage, whereupon they tumbled on to the platform and rolled safely away before soaking up the rapturous applause.

Outside insights

Training students in such feats requires a specialist parkour qualification, so St Joseph's needed outside expertise. Mr Boyle is generally wary of bringing experts into school as their ability to work with young people varies widely, but he heaps praise on Scott Houston, the Glasgow instructor who worked with the boys. Mr Houston also helped to set up an after-school club, open to all, which attracted 10-15 pupils a week.

In the first week of the programme, Mr Houston asked a sceptical group to get over a vaulting box in whichever way they could. "One of the boys said, `You get over it, then.' He went up, did a backflip and they went, `Aye, OK'," Mr Boyle said. From then on, he had them, because of how good he was.They googled him and went, `Wow, look at what he can do.' "

In 2012, the National Theatre of Scotland ran a parkour project for schools called Jump. At the time, NTS associate director Simon Sharkey spoke to TES about the difficulty of finding role models for boys. Parkour was ideal, he said, because "it is a bit macho, so it gives boys a platform to express themselves without it being stigmatised".

Free from fear

Kieran was already a footballer and kickboxer when he was introduced to parkour, but even so the sport was harder than he expected. After getting through his daunting first flip, however, he hasn't looked back, and the confidence boost has helped him to achieve in maths and English, with the prospect of giving a presentation no longer holding the same fear. After mastering parkour, he said, "you're not scared of doing stuff".

The teamwork involved has had a big impact on the group. The boys weren't all friends beforehand but bonded by working out creative ways to overcome obstacles. One 14-year-old participant, Andrew Gaughan, said it was the problem-solving, team-building aspect of parkour that he liked most.

"For evermore, there's a togetherness among the pupils who were involved in that programme," Mr Boyle said.

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