“It is all about letting go of your ego in the moment and trying to find a balanced place to work from.”
What kind of mindset do you like to have when approaching a descent for the first time?
“Really it is hard to give you a straight answer because my motivation for descents or cat drops or whatever people are calling them nowadays shifts. Sometimes I train them exclusively alone because a lot of my training partners get creeped out by them or find being up high mentally challenging. So this can make my head spin creating a little bit of negative feedback loop where they are freaked out so it freaks me out. There is this scientific theory of mirror neurons that I always reference for when a person breaks a precision or some technical challenge and then everyone else breaks it right after them. The same part of your brain that fires the mirror neurons when copying a physical pattern also does the same for relating to other people in emotionally charged situations.
Other times I will train a descent in an area that friends are training other challenges. The energy from having others around pushes me to clear out things that may be on my mind. This gives me the clear frame of mind I need in order to attempt a descent that may be particularly new or one that has some awkward pieces to it. Having others around training eases the pressure of the challenge in a sense.
But mindset is super important, I approach descents with a sense of calmness, humility and respect. Just the same way that a big wave surfer, rock climber or base jumper treats their projects. It is all about letting go of your ego in the moment and trying to find a balanced place to work from. I feel like if I go into a project too serious with the goal of accomplishing it in that day, it teaches me a lesson and I walk away being unaccomplished and freaked out. Other times I will be training with someone else before hand doing something more playful like playing “the possibility game” which is seeing a challenge and just saying “oh let’s try that it seems slightly possibile” and it helps prime my brain for something more scary in the day. Laughter is really helpful for all things scary, along with being playful both ease tension. Other days I just roll out of bed and feel ready to break a certain descent.
The process really varies, but to me it all comes down to how you are feeling internally. I have had feelings of super strong doubt and walked away from some descents because of what was happening internally. Which to me that is a bigger challenge than the challenge itself. Being able to understand your emotional response to a said challenge can really shape you more as a person at the end of the day.“
“I have been totally terrified by some descents and it took me a long time to just commit to them on the first go. Usually it is something happening internally that I am not coming to terms with.”
What are your steps for scouting descents? How long from first look to last drop?
“Each descent is a little bit different. Some I find by just searching in Google Maps and plugging in “Parking Garage”. This does not always yield the best results and I find one or two things that might work. A few days before a jam I often do this sometimes finding some pretty amazing spots. The most tried and true method is just exploring your city and trying to locate parking structures or little nooks that offer something you would not have otherwise seen. This to me is really just true the philosophy of Parkour and keeps the discipline alive. For example two shots (1, 2) in the Unfolding video were found by accident and then I ended up using them in the final edit. The first one was in a little hidden spot that I found with a mental kong pre over a four story drop. So I sort of just happened upon it and worked out the technique with a couple of friends. The second was a spot my friend told me about and I did not think it was a possibility at first. Then after working it from the bottom it started to all come together and workout in the end.
As for dropping down from the top it is very different for each descent. Some require a little bit of mental preparation while others happen on the spot with 5-6 attempts. Really though it is about the mindset and what you are trying to work out in the end. I have been totally terrified by some descents and it took me a long time to just commit to them on the first go. Usually it is something happening internally that I am not coming to terms with.
Normally what I do is I try to envision what I want to work on at the location. I don’t normally attempt it right away. I try to give myself some time before I even commit to them. If I find a spot that seems doable I’ll go there one day and walk around top to bottom and take photos of the location. I have a folder in my phone that has all the GeoCoordinates and images of different descent in town that I want to work on or have worked on. After taking some photos I will do a few visualization drills at home. I’ll make sure to have really got a full snapshot of the location and try to build a photo out of it in memory. I try to think about the space physically while laying in bed or in a bath brainstorming how I would attempt it, the route I have in mind, starting from bottom to the top, basically recursively doing all the moves in my head.
Then I try to create a day to work on the location usually weekends are best cause that is when the people who work their are gone and security is either pretty low key or off for the weekend. Really each location is different so you have to do your homework. I try to not give myself a solid date to work on a project. This does not really work for me and gets me pretty nervous the day of.”
“I think it is important especially for Parkour to flourish and reach other people in different communities to create a space where the community is viewed positively.”
How has dealing with security affected your practice of descents?
“It has not hindered me much, I deal less with security and more with workers or employees of businesses. When I have run into security they are usually pretty nice. I feel like I have pretty good luck because I have only had one encounter with a security guard doing descents and they just asked me to leave.
With employees or workers at some of the locations I have trained at they usually ask what I am doing and then tell me to leave. I think it is important especially for Parkour to flourish and reach other people in different communities to create a space where the community is viewed positively. This means distinguishing ourselves from the mentality that skateboarders have which is aggressive toward security and hostile toward passersby. They have done a lot to change that attitude toward their culture, but it still is better to start off with being communicative about your intentions. So that in the future you clearly have the space to train at location you may have not been able to otherwise. I know for example that the community in Austin, Texas created a good relationship with campus security at UT Austin such that they are never kicked off campus. Well, as long as they are not on roofs.
How many times do you usually do a descent before being happy with a shot of it?
Often for a simpler one it is about 5-6 times to run through it top to bottom fully before being happy with the end results. I am a bit of a perfectionist so some are bit more difficult to walk away with the results I have in mind. For example this one was a bit more involved it took about six months of practice to hash out the whole thing. When I first happened upon this location I had no intention of finding a descent nor working on one. It is pretty unique in that it has 3 different staircases in one area, each with their own features that you can apply to the other. I first started by working out the drops for each level comfortably until I felt calm and controlled from the top. Then I worked on the drop pre from the roof of the building to the top handrail. Then I eventually just put it all together while filming for the video. This is a video that shows all the different iterations it took to get the end result.
As for others like I said above I am at the location my head is in the right place, the descent itself is pretty easy in terms of the drop and you are just ready to go. Like the one in the Bay Area I saw both Rene and Daryl this descent, so while I was on a summer trip in June of last year I decided to attempt it for the Unfolding video. This one took 5-6 tries to get it smoothed out from the top. So really it comes down to a few things: mindset, preparation and experience with the techniques. But you need to be 100% if you are underslept, hungry, nervous, doubtful it can become a nightmare of a situation. You need to listen to your body and have an intimate relationship with what I call “the internal dialogue” or “mental chatter”.”
“The fear will always be there this is just a fact.”
How do you break down fear barriers when something as serious as death is involved?
“The fear will always be there this is just a fact. I do not want to ignore it nor hide it nor brute force your way through it and I think it is important to be brought up. Just like I said before it is mostly about how you build your mindset around a challenge as much as it is about listening to what your body is telling you internally.
The process and the way you prep the descent can really shape the outcome of what you envision. So building a strong base around the movement before hand can build a better understanding of yourself and how you face the challenge. So really the biggest thing is make sure you feel a 100% before you even think about stepping up to the top. I rep the first level about 20 if not 30 times before I feel comfortable. This means one day I will just rep the bottom and then slowly work my way up day by day, level by level. To me it is about building the confidence in your technique and most everything else falls into place. Alex Honnold said that he practiced all the moves, patterns, sequences of El Cap to figure out all the cruxes with a rope before even considering free soloing it. This means time and dedication are paramount in my eyes descents should be treated with the same type of respect.
But there is also something to be said about feeling fear and sitting with it. Fear is like any other emotion you have to spend some intimate time with it, feel it and move with it. In my more advanced Parkour classes and even some of my beginner-intermediate classes I’ll give them a fear exercise where they have to deal with a challenge at height. I will give them a few different iterations of the challenge, say standing near a waist high wall with a scary drop on one side, standing on top of the waist high wall facing the drop or even hanging in a cat on the drop side of the wall. Freeway Park is a great place for this because of the dense neatly constructed architecture and offers a lot of different fear based challenges. Once they find one they want to attempt I will have them get into position and feel the fear. Once they have come to terms with the fear I will give them some breathing exercises to calm down the nervous system and center themselves. Depending on the class type and size I will have them rep this which can in and of itself prime them for something harder in the day.”
“I use mediation and specifically mindfulness meditation as a way to tap into that place of observation and awareness.”
Where did you hone your technique for cat drops?
“I am a coach at Parkour Visions gym, so when we used to have our gym, I just set up a couple of rails on the wall for doing vertical cat drops. I mainly practice the technique there with no real goal or any real routine in mind. Just wanted to add the movement to my repertoire of moves. But then I saw a spiral staircase at University of Washington in Seattle near the Henry Art Gallery and that was really where I practiced my cat drop technique. I got obsessed with the spot and would go there in my free time. I just drilled double hand support drop, single hand support drop and an assisted one foot on the wall drop and gradually did it with less and less support until I felt comfortable. The thing about the spot though is that it has flat metal screens instead of bars so there’s less fear of catching your feet in between them. And is set in from the street so no one can really see you in the spot. So free from eyes, even when it is busy and just an easy way to start.”
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
“Yes, I want to talk about two different things: meditation and reading. First off a lot of what I have tried to do with descent and working them out mentally is put myself in a state of calm attentive focus. I use mediation and specifically mindfulness meditation as a way to tap into that place of observation and awareness. I try as much as I can to meditate 15 – 20 minutes a day in the morning after I wake up. This has given me such an important place to start my day from. Helping me observe how my emotions may be all out of whack when I am training by letting fear get the best of me.
I read like a maniac so I would like to offer a few books that have really helped me understand myself, training and emotions: The NLP Workbook, Fear! and The Rock Warrior’s Way. Each of these titles have worked wonders for my training and areas in my everyday life.”
Thanks so much for reading! We hope you enjoyed learning about moving with fear from Bryan’s descent process as much as we did. Since we are still so early in the development of descent techniques and the history of the sport, it is our great pleasure to be able to document this for future generations of athletes. If there are other athletes or training processes you want to know more about let us know in the comments or send us a message on Facebook. It has been a wonderful exercise working to discover which type of content works best on this platform and we’ll keep you updated each step as we go.
*This article has been edited for grammar, length and language barriers.