Rite of passage: a ritual event that marks a person’s transition from one status to another. Milestones include transitions from puberty, year 7 to high school, coming of age, marriage, and death.
Rites of passage have a long history in human culture. From tribal communities to the Roman Empire and beyond, we have used these tests of courage, strength, or will as a way to separate the “men from the boys,” the full members of the group from those still on the upward path. Often these practices were the center piece of a young man or woman’s life, the culmination of years of study and training under the watchful eyes of their elders or peers. Failure to complete a ritual could lead to great public and personal shame on the individual or family but completion was a mark of great honor and the privilege of full adulthood or full inclusion in the group.
But how many rites of passage do we have in our modern world? Outside of specific religious obligations, there are very few. Getting a driver’s license could count, but many people have no need or no desire for one, and the test can be done as many times as needed to pass. The military has bootcamp and specialized training programs with usually include a final test but military service isn’t mandatory so not everyone will experience that kind of test.
This lack of rites of passage is argued as a major shortcoming of the modern era. Without a clear distinction between childhood and adulthood many people drift through their teens and 20’s with a sense of displacement and uncertainty. “Am I really an adult? What do I do now, what counts as adult things? A full-time job, a family, more money?” Objects and material milestones take the place of mental milestones. We become lost in the fog, watching as we slowly get older but still feeling like we haven’t entered anything new.
Call me old-fashioned or an unnecessary worrier, but I’m seeing this type of malaise more and more in the Parkour and Freerunning community. As the number of practitioners grows so does the desire to know when one has “made it,” when one is no longer a newbie but a full-fledged practitioner, even master. What do I have to do to show that I understand and I’m good at this PK/FR thing? Is it when I can kong vault? Maybe a level 3 climb-up and a 10ft precision? I can define a difference between Freerunning & Parkour and I can name all the founders from memory, am I there now?
I can remember specifically when I went through a transformative process like a rite of passage. It was at a jam, the New York City national jam, which took place I believe in 2008. It was my first truly big jam where there would be people from around the country, including heroes of mine like Levi Meeuwenberg. I made the trip north and after meeting up and training with everyone at the host, Jesse’s, house we crashed for the night. I slept behind the TV in his room because there was no room anywhere else.
By 8am the next morning we were all up and raring to go. A short train ride into NYC and we were training on anything and everything we could find. From Central Park to underneath the bridges and across the waterfronts, we spent the entire day moving. I spent the day trying to hit the biggest things I could, wanting to show I hadn’t been training for nothing. After hours in the city we made our way back to Jesse’s house, just as the sun was setting. I was hungry, covered in half-dry sweat, and ready to sleep.
It was then that Jesse and a few others invited us to come with them on a conditioning session. “It wouldn’t be long,” they said, “just an hour or two.” Feeling rundown but not wanting to skip an opportunity to hang with them more, I accepted. And it was there that the rite of passage began.
What ensued was nearly six hours of non-stop exercise. It started with several miles of balancing along railroad tracks, interspersed with squats and push-ups. Then it was hundreds of yards of crawling, lunging, and wall traversing. As midnight approached we made it to a local football stadium where we were told the conditioning session would actually begin. My soul has rarely been crushed as hard as when I realized we weren’t even halfway done the night.
Backwards QM up steep stadium steps. Hand railing pull-ups. Barefoot running. Partner lifting and dragging. We pushed and punished ourselves through at least another hour and a half of work. I cramped up twice in each leg and was probably dehydrated, way past the point of overtraining. Even when we had finally finished the conditioning we had to walk back to Jesse’s house. We didn’t get to sleep till almost 3am. I have never slept harder in my life; I literally passed out.
When I left for home the next day I was annihilated. Soreness was the least of my problems. My feet dragged, my movements were sluggish, I was just utterly spent. The next week would see me slowly recover from the ordeal but with a new mindset and focus. I hadn’t done as well as others at the session (Levi was deadlifting my entire body at one point and I outweighed him by 25 pounds) but I had finished. I had survived. I felt like I had passed through an invisible wall, one that separated me from my training before and my training to come. I was now a Traceur, a true practitioner, baptized in fire, whatever you wanted to call it. I had made it.
How many reading this now can relate to it? Have you ever experienced a shift in your training after a rite of passage? Or what do you consider a rite of passage in Parkour? Personally I think we need to encourage more conditioning or drilling sessions like the one I experienced, not because it helps physically, but because it helps mentally. It creates a line in the sand, a definitive point, not to create elites, but to create an individual, internal mile-marker.
What do you think? Is Parkour and Freerunning in need of some kinds of rites of passage? They don’t have to be uniform and could be unique from one region or group to another, but I think they’d do wonders towards helping the community as a whole move forward.