Who's ready to push an analogy way too far?
I've been actively teaching Fifth Ape classes for nearly two years now (wow) and I've learned a ton about the state of fitness/health/athleticism in the population along the way. I was talking about this with a business school friend the other day and hit upon an analogy that I like - Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
I would say that most of the people who come out for our classes are reasonably fit to begin with, but haven't really engaged in anything quite like parkour or martial arts before. What they have done is run… or biked… or rowed. I see a lot of triathletes. I see a lot of crossfitters. People who are used to pointing themselves forward and getting work done.
These people are like trains. Powerful engines. High work capacity. All good stuff. But take a train off its tracks and it ceases to be useful. Trains don't change directions very well. They, shall we say, aren't the best at flying - but it's funny to imagine the attempt. On the right set of rails they are phenomenal, but there isn't a lot of versatility there. Just like people with a high level of fitness, but not a lot of skill.
Now think about cars. Cars have the ability to turn, accelerate and decelerate quickly, go fast, go slow, and in the hands of an experienced driver, perform some pretty impressive moves. You see where I'm going with this, right? Cars are to trains what athletics is to fitness. Athletes don't just have work capacity. They have movement skill. They have balance and coordination. They have power and control. Sports cars have highly tuned steering and handling that you won't find on any train. Similarly, the thing that separates an athlete from a (perhaps fit) non-athlete is a trained nervous system. It's important to recognize that you need to pay much more attention when you're driving a car vs. riding on a train. You need to be mindful. You need to be in control. You probably don't want your first car to be an Enzo - otherwise this might happen:
With athletic training we need to learn to dial in and focus. We also need to be progressive. Your first run shouldn't be a marathon, your first back squat shouldn't be 400lbs. and your first true athletic test probably shouldn't be heavy parkour. Dancing is a great choice. I actually think martial arts are a solid option as well. And, of course the granddaddy of them all is natural play behavior - go climb something.
Now, watching elite athletes do their thing is often more like watching a fighter jet than a car. It's a whole new level - a whole new dimension really. Learning to fly anything, let alone a fighter jet, takes years and years of specific training. It's not for everyone. In fact, it's hardly for anyone - and there are costs. Aerospace engineers: correct me if I'm wrong, but the reason fighter jets are capable of their incredible stunts are because they are designed to be inherently unstable. They don't fly straight - not without flight computer assistance. The tradeoff is that instability allows the jet to do crazy things in the air. Elite athletes have almost always specialized themselves to the point of instability. Baseball pitchers have one hyper lax shoulder and elbow for example. This can lead to career success, but in the long run it can also lead to chronic pain and injury - not what most of us are after.
I don't mean to suggest that in this analogy cars are better than trains or… well… actually, yes, I guess I do mean to suggest that cars are better than trains. They're certainly more fun and more rewarding. I think everyone would benefit from learning how to actually be athletic vs. simply being fit. But it does take more commitment. Recognize that you can pursue your athletic training as far as you want to - learn how to drive a Civic vs. an Aventador if you will.
One of the big things I've learned as coach is that even the most accomplished runner, triathlete, or crossfitter needs to start actual athletic training from the very beginning. This can be tough both for the coach and the trainee. The trainee is used to performing at a high level and wants to jump into things - and as a coach you want to give the client what they want. The result can be some serious overreaching that results in unnecessary soreness and even an increased risk for injury. Not fun for anyone. My advice to all parkour coaches is treat everyone, even the most accomplished "Trains" as absolute beginners. Be ready to explain why things are perhaps a little slow in the beginning - if the client has a problem with it, then suggest they find somewhere else to train.
If you are just getting started on your health/fitness/athleticism journey, I will leave you with what I guess I will call the "Prius Plan" - simple, efficient, effective, and low risk:
1. Go for a walk every day. Bonus points for walking/talking with a friend.
2. T'ai Chi.
3. Eat real food.
4. Get good sleep.
Yes, it's that simple.