Like many of the uninitiated, I find the world of parkour fascinating. It is mysterious and mesmerising and serves the function of a certain physical alchemy rarely seen. I was lucky enough to go to school with one of Parkour's shining lights; a bloke called John "Kerbie" Kerr.
In an open letter which responds to a recent matter of controversy involving John and some of his students, he offers the most insightful introduction to the ideology of Parkour that I have ever read.
Pour yourself a glass of something, sit down comfortably and begin one of the most fascinating reads I have had for some time.
An Open Letter to the Parkour Community of Hafnarfjordur, my students and their parents, the wicked whisperers and the downright nosey.
First to get an idea of who I am and my achievements in the last 6 years particularly, I would ask you to read the following links:
Kerbie In Iceland http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e74KfY-wsjw
Storm Iceland Parkour Camp http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=latY8LuUU4c
UrbanFreeflow Iceland Parkour Camp http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FsvUzrQO84
"Near the beginning of Jump Britain, a British traceur named John Kerr, aka Kerbie, discusses a period of depression in his life and what happened when he started doing parkour. "There were times when I'd be really really upset, and then I'd go out and find myself doing parkour and forgetting who I am, forgetting every one of my problems, becoming Kerbie, I guess, not being John anymore, not having the weight on my shoulders that John has." Some of this sounds a little teenage mystical or new-agey, but these guys aren't supposed to be theoreticians. In Kerbie's words, I think you can see an authentic transformation that parkour has created, and in the same way rappers take on different names to become invincible (fat, scared Chris Wallace becomes The Notorious B.I.G.), many traceurs take on new names to make the freedom from everyday constraints manifest. It also lets them pretend they're in The Matrix with names like reaktor and wildcard313, but the play and the authentic evolution mix well together."
"John "Kerbie" Kerr from the United Kingdom is as original as it gets in the Parkour world. He's been around since the beginning days of Urban Freeflow and was one of the innovators in the group. His hardcore dedication to training, combined with the wild and outgoing personality of a strong lead singer has made him one of the more popular traceurs over the years."
They say that no good deed goes unpunished.
I made a very big mistake recently. I heard rumours about my character, personal life and work life and I decided to ignore them and just keep my head down. The mistake I made was being quiet when I should have made myself loud and defended myself. I have been quiet for almost one year about the injustices I have recieved and this open letter exists so that my story becomes known.
I would like to start this open letter with a definition of what Parkour is and is not. I feel that this would clear up some of the smaller confusing matters about my sport and it's participants.
The Types of Parkour and Freerunning
Parkour is the concept of using one’s own strength, speed, agility and skill to overcome obstacles and barriers. It can look dynamic and explosive from one perspective, yet fluid and graceful from another. It can be complex and difficult in one movement, but simple and direct in the next. It is an efficiency discipline that helps one explore their new awareness of owning a body, a vehicle, and maintaining it. It encourages exploration of not only one’s environment, but one’s own instinctive fears and rationality. The tool is found in the skills of discipline, self awareness and respect for your environment. The body is a machine of cause and effect, impression and expression, creation and destruction. It is a personal tool that can be used to help one save time on his journey and catch that bus or train that he always misses. Yet it could be the difference between life and death in a situation of disaster. The tool can be acquired in the skills needed to be strong and fast in both mind and body.
The efficiency tool draws its roots from Method Naturelle; a french military discipline in which movement should be efficient, purposeful and effective whilst looking fluid, natural and effortless for the athlete performing them.
It also takes inspiration from the teachings of Bruce Lee, The Movies of Jackie Chan and the spirit of the martial art student; to learn to be useful in mind, body and spirit.
Freerunning is an expressive art that has brought thousands of people together over the last 15 years via street performances, workshops, competitions, movies, documentaries and meet-ups. Free runners and traceurs train together at gatherings nicknamed ‘Jams’ every week, worldwide.
Practitioners on the journey of overcoming obstacles tend not to be caught up with social boundaries, either. The rule of thumb is that our differences give us the opportunity to learn something new from one another. Our differences give birth to self expression; our similarities help us empathise with those around us. Each person has a different perspective, a different schema and thus a different response to each stimulus. This allows us to each bring our own unique brush to paint the canvas of a shared reality, in whatever colour we deem fit at the time.
It is a tool that often provokes debate. It encourages one to question their knowledge of their own vehicle, and if they are using it to their full potential, whilst also gaining social status with interesting tricks and stories to share with their friends.
A good mantra is “a chance to question myself is a chance to learn something new or improve on something old. “
The expressive tool draws its roots from Break dance (aka breaking), Gymnastics, Acrobatics, Martial Arts, Tricking and various extreme sports. The beautiful thing about the self expressive side of free running is that many more disciplines and performance arts over time will inspire and shape the future movements and tricks people perform. This can be seen with the increase of free runners drawing inspiration from Chinese and Russian circus tricks, such as rise in popularity of the flag, in which a performer grabs a vertical pole with his hands and performs a horizontal handstand
Parkour is a sport that embodies freedom. The idea is to be able to overcome any obstacle; be it physical, mental, spiritual or social.
In the media it has been represented as outdoor gymnastics and roof jumping, a very small (yet sensational) part of what Parkour embodies. 90% of Parkour training world wide takes place on ground level. In the majority of countries I have visited, Parkour is trained outdoors and has a strong community. There are prominent members in the community but they are by no means leaders. Everyone is equal from the age of 8 to 88 as far as the community is concerned.
Training is arranged by members of the community and they have specific areas (hotspots) where they meet up to socialise and to play (jamming). It has similarties to the breakdancing culture of the 80's. There is no official governing body, there is no official competition and there are no official standards for practising the sport. This is what keeps it pure. Parkour is about uniqueness and the ability to adapt yourself. No good traceurs (participants of the sport) move alike. Your body is your own vehicle for exploring planet Earth and your mind is the computer which makes sense of it. Every person has their own way of moving, their own mindset and their own perspective. This is the most important aspect of Parkour. If we rigidly define it, we rigidly confine it.
However, it is a very different picture in Iceland. The fickle weather makes it difficult to arrange outdoor training and the architecture really does not lend itself to the sport. Due to this, the majority of Parkour in Iceland takes places in indoor gymnasiums. This has led to the confused ideas that my sport is like gymnastics and thus has the same standards and ettiquete that gymnastics does, this is not true at all.
Parkour is not about competing with one another. Parkour is not about learning tricks and acrobatic movements to impress others. Parkour is to be shaped around your life, where conversely, a gymnast has to shape his/her life around their sport.
I care not what my student eats, drinks or thinks. I care not what my student does outside my classroom as long as they are not training parkour dangerously or using it for crime. My classes are focused on discipline, dedication and determination. My students must act safely and respectful towards themselves, others and the equipment and that is all I ask of them.
When a lot of people watch a Parkour video for the first time they often remark something similar to this "Wow those guys would be really good at running away from the police" or "Wow those guys would make awesome cat burglars."
Very rarely does someone say something like "Imagine how good those guys would be at catching burglars," or "Wow those guys would make good policemen!"
I'm not a psychologist so I won't dwell on why people jump straight to the negative applications of my sport before considering the positive aspects.
But what I can do is share the positive aspects with you so that you can understand why I'm so sincerely gutted about how the last year has played out.
The majority of people over the age of 13 that practise Parkour with me are often referred to as "street kids" out here. A lot of them dress in clothing inspired by hip hop culture, listen to rap music and hang out in groups on the street.
To the uninitiated eye, a gang of kids in baggy clothing listening to "f@*K the police" can be quite intimidating. To me, I see young men and women that come together to socialize, to listen to music and to practise sport. Is that not something we need more of?
A lot of my students had never signed up to a sport before. Very many of my students have special learning needs such as Autism Spectrum disorders, ADD and ADHD. These are often victims of bullying and exclusion from team and competitive sports. On the opposite end of the classroom I have students with bad attendance at school, no self motivation, distracting and bullying others in school and suffering from very low self esteem.
For 3 nights a week they call me coach and they train TOGETHER. On the inside, I'm not a coach, I don't ask them to do any movements they don't want to and I don't push them harder than they would push themselves. My job isn't to motivate individuals. It's to teach them how to motivate themselves whilst training safely and sensibly.
My job is to assist them in their journey of discovery. My lessons aren't there as quick fixes or crash courses in roof jumping and backflips. My classes are there to inspire and educate. In all honesty, how many people have a method of showing unruly youths that through practise and repetition you can achieve anything. Since I became head coach, Björk had recieved phone calls and letters from not only parents, but teachers and the Town of HFJ about the work I was doing and the positive impact it has had with my students. My class numbers have almost doubled in 3 months and there is now a long waiting list for students.
Please at this point understand, I have not once promoted my classes out here. Word of mouth is the only way people know about my classes and I have the biggest subscription of Students in Iceland. This is not because of advertising, self-promotion or taking petty shots at the competition. This is from reputation alone. I have a fantastic reputation and I am no longer able to sit there and allow people to tarnish it.
I have ignored all media and press and instead asked them to speak to actual Icelandic figureheads in our community, such as the Radioactive Pants Parkour and Freerun team. I did not come here to speak on behalf of the Icelandic people and I never will. It is so much more important for a Parkour community to have ambassadors that actually train the sport and have earned their stripes within the community. I came here to guide those ambassadors and to help them learn from the experiences I've had over the last ten years. I present years of experience in safe training and have offered to help these figureheads with creating a set of standards and rules to help the sport become official. I would not normally do this, but the weather in Iceland has forced me to compromise my line of thinking. Making the sport official would allow funding for a purpose built space so that people can safely train real parkour with proper equipment.
Unfortunately for myself, my peers and the community, there is another individual out here that outright wants to own Parkour in Iceland. He is the self proclaimed founder of Parkour in Iceland and cannot shout loudly enough about it. In my opinion he is not experienced enough to teach, he has demonstrated no expertise in the sport and over the last year he has bumped himself in and out of trouble in his comedic attempts for fame and fortune.
I have watched him injure himself through bad technique, I have watched him injure himself trying to impress others and I´ve even been the one giving him emergency first aid and getting help. What started out as a positive relationship with him quickly became negative and I decided to distance myself from him. I fear that he thinks that because I refuse to work with him or for him, that I´m working against him. This has led to all manner of rumours circulating around for the last 6 months. The climax of our tensions played out in the Summer and the events proceeding saw him working in a new gym and me taking over as head coach of parkour at Björk.
Previously, he´d asked me to write his application for UMSK and I very obviously declined, stating that if you are not fit enough to write your own application, you are not fit enough to speak on behalf of the sport yet. I offered to give him some points to research some extra coaching to raise his standards up but he declined.
The trouble he has caused several people in the last year has pretty much left a long list of people who will block his application to speak on behalf of Parkour or the participants of the sport. This list includes ex-colleagues, ex-employers, ex-employees, parents of ex-students, ex-students, super stars from the world parkour and freerun community and family members of some of Reykjaviks elite.
I will not name this individual other than as "my rival", nor will I name his company as I do not want to shine any spotlight in his direction and I wish no association with him other than to end this silly game of tit for tat. Recently an event at Björk involving some of my students being caught thieving on CCTV was escalated way out of hand. I admit on my part that I could have handled the event better. But feeling a duty to my students and my morals I asked permission from the gym to speak to the thieving students first in order to get back the belongings of the victim. My main criticism I have recieved is not notifying the parents involved.
On the night the event happened, I was phoned by one of the house staff who explained the events. I was asked if I was ok to get the police involved as they had pretty strong evidence.
The next day I spoke to my manager at the gym and the staff who had witnessed the incident. I saw the footage and was absolutely disgusted by who was involved. The students involved are ones I definitely thought knew better. They are good young lads to teach and Parkour means a lot to them. I knew that if the police and parents got involved, these boys may lose out on something so special to them for something so silly and out of character. I asked the gym to give me 24 hours to get the stuff back and if I could, could the whole event just be forgotten. The gym agreed and I set about on making everything right.
In retrospect, I understand how much easier it would have been to just make a phone call to the parents and police and to have washed my hands of it all. But in my heart, I wanted the thieves to know that I personally do not teach people that engage in causing loss or harm to others and if they understood that, then they were welcome back. My sport is often compared to cat burglars and gang culture and I wanted to let these individuals know that they are ambassadors of the sport in Iceland. The frustrating thing is that some of the individuals involved are some of the most popular and talented students I have taught and are highly looked up to by some of my younger students. I had no plans on banning the students, I had no plans on punishing them and I took no joy in running around after them for 3 days trying to make everything ok.
I was over the moon when the majority of the students involved returned the belongings back to me, listened to my boring lecture about thieves and parkour and off of their own back they sincerely apologised to the victim. A small minority, however, did not get back to me and did not understand how serious stealing from another human being is. I tried to call them several times and had no luck. I found out that they had decided to skip practise and train at another gym instead.
I spoke to an employee of the town of Hafnarfjordur to ask if there was anything I could do to give the student more time to come to correct this, and he suggested that I phone the other gym. As my old rival was teaching there and knew the students involved, we both hoped that he could explain to the student that it was important for not only himself and the victim, but for our sport that an apology was made.
The student had not come back to talk to me, so the next day I updated my manager. He told me that the student was now banned, I however said that if the individual got their parents to call and speak to me, I would be happy to have them back in my class. I just needed to know that my student understood how serious stealing from another student is and that they would not use what I was teaching them for more crime.
Sadly, it didn´t work out that way and I ended up in a meeting with a very upset parent that had heard all manner of confusing rumours and perspectives of the event and my character. The parent was understandibly very angry and whilst I tried everything to explain myself, it was clear that their mind had been made up about me. After hearing several outrageous accusations and attempts to bully and threaten me, I lost my patience and told them that I didn´t believe they were here to sort anything out and were just making idle threats in order to protect their child. In turn, I was asked to leave the meeting.
I was asked to publicly apologise to the family involved and was singled out to have my public life intruded on. After feeling no solidarity from Björk whatsoever during the run of events, I handed in my notice to quit. Stating that I would finish just before christmas in order to complete and perform our winter show. Two members of the gym then really took the time to sit with me and to try to provide some help and comfort for me. We had a meeting about the whole scheme of events and I was told that Björk were in a bind. The parent had threatened to go to the press about some of the unsubstantiated rumours they had heard if their demands were not met. After some media controversy in the past about the behaviour of one of their employees, Björk were very hesitant to defend me. But upon seeing my written notice they had realised how much would be lost. Parkour was a gold mine for the gym, I had around 300 students that looked up to me and a steady stream of letters from parents, teachers and towns people about how well I was doing. They asked me to retract my notice and that they would help me fight this individual that had been spreading the rumours.
The next day I was fired. The reason given was that by phoning the other gym about my student I had broken the gyms rules on confidentiality. I asked if this was why I was asked to retract my notice and was told that it was not important any more. The manager himself told me he was absolutely gutted about how it had all played out, but members from the board of the gym (people who as far as i know still to this day have not spoken to me, been to one of my classes or spoken to any of my students) had made the decision. As a protest to this ridiculous decision, the other two parkour coaches handed in their notice immediately and parkour is now being covered by gymnastic coaches.
A few individuals were not happy enough with me losing my job last week so they decided to spread their rumours to the national media. One of these individuals in particular knows that they are lying as they have been corrected by all those around them about the truth of the rumours. However, the truth does not simply suit this persons purpose.
I ask this, if the people that phoned the news about me are worried that these rumours are true, why didn´t they call the police instead.
It is simply because of this - The truth doesnt help some people´s plans. However, the truth will always be the focus and drive for my plans and it needs to come out more than ever.
To the journalist that called me from Frettabladid - If you want a real story mate you´ve got it. I have spent the last weekend not only meeting my coaches, students, parents and ex-colleagues, I´ve also been fortunate enough to speak to some of my rival´s own coaches and students who have offered to clear my name too. I have a petition from students, parents and staff at Björk. I have members of staff involved in the theft event willing to sign legal papers to say that I acted in a mature and responsible manner. I have an inbox full of parents and students offering their support and letting me know that they are allied with me. Wherever i go to teach next, they will follow because they know the truth.
In my heart of hearts, I would be back at Björk teaching. I love the staff and coaches there and some of them have been so supportive to an often homesick and lonely young man. I think that the decision they made was wrong and not just for me, but for the 300 students whose choice now is to sign up to be taught parkour by a "parkour" coach that is less skilled than them, or to be taught parkour by a gymnastic coach who´s just filling in. This can be put right and I´m sure that Björk know that from all of the emails they have been recieving, the petitions and the refund requests.
A warning to my studentsSome of you have contacted me to train recently and I have bumped into a few of you on the street. You have often joked about bullying, excluding and acting violently towards the people involved in me being taken away from Björk. I understand your frustration as I know that you all lost out too. But know this, violence and bullying are not my way. If we make life harder for the people that are already making life hard for themselves, no one benefits. Don´t use your energy for bitching and bullying, use it for training even harder. Prove to people that our time together wasn´t wasted. Be real freerunners!
If you want to spend any energy on making this situation right then here´s how
- Contact Björk - Let them know about your experience with me as a coach. Let them know that the rumours are false. I want to be back in Björk and you guys can make this happen. 565 2311, Netfang: email@example.com
- Email Frettabladid and tell them the truth about everything. Parents please do this too, I have spoken to many of you in the past and you´ve always had positive things to say, it´s times like this when they really count. The journalist I spoke to has this email address firstname.lastname@example.org
- Write to the town of HFJ and let them know about this. -http://www.hafnarfjordur.is/
- Do your own research. Find out who my rival is and why my rival left Björk this summer. You will find the root of his rumours there.
- Find out who really started Parkour in Iceland. Contact the community and find the truth about the true history of the sport in your country.
- Come train with me outside. If you´re upset about the decision and want to train, then come and train with me safely, for free. Lets jam like the rest of the world.
I will be training outdoors for the rest of this month and will be busy with some fantastic projects that i will kick start in 2011.
In december, I will be renting a indoor space for training and all are invited. I will post more information about that nearer the time.
Thank you to everyone that has leant their support to me at this time. Some of you don´t know how much I really needed to hear what you have said to me. You have all been my strength and focus this whole time and we WILL be training together very soon.
Live, Love and Learn,
John "Kerbie" Kerr