Freestyle used to be the word that separated BMX racing from what grew out of it. Today the term is not as widely used as it once was, but what do we mean when we use the word Freestyle?
Freestyle vs. Freestyle
The first thing to notice when listening to BMX riders is that there two different meanings of the word ‘freestyle’ in common use. The first represents one of our sports guiding principles – there are no rules and no restrictions. You can express yourself any way you like. Furthermore, you don’t have to learn anything you don’t want to, there’s no rigid structure to riding.
The second definition of ‘freestyle’ comes up when people talk about ‘doing Freestyle’ or ‘Freestyling’. This refers to the instinctive stream of tricks that an experienced rider can become immersed in. In this sense it can be likened to the modern definition of freestyle in rap. The rider, to some degree at least, makes up the combination of tricks as they go along, moving from one position to the next unplanned position in a natural, spontaneous expression - or flow.
To reach the point where a rider can flow in this way, they usually require a significant degree of bike control and reasonably broad vocabulary of tricks. So, in some sense, to fully experience freestyle in this second sense, you need to have some kind of rigidity to your approach to riding. Many pro riders stress the need for beginners not to skip the basics; that the early steps in riding must all be made in order to avoid problems with the later stages of development.
It could be argued that those riders who are the most creative are also those who have the greatest mastery of the bike and a larger repertoire of tricks. How flow fits into this is not clear. Do some riders find it easier to get into flow and so find it easier to progress with riding? Or is it that as a rider improves their overall bike control and trick vocabulary that they find it easier to get into flow? Either way, there is undoubtedly a correlation between riders that excel and those riders that easily get into psychological flow.
The Rules Can Set You Free
To investigate this idea further I would like to explore a pastime which requires just as much intense focus and solitary practice as freestyle BMX – the game of chess.
It should be noted that based on current estimates there are more possible chess games than atoms in the universe. Despite the practically infinite number of potential games, chess experts since the 1950’s have been keeping a record of each of the moves from each major tournament - this archive is now accessible online. This catalogue is huge and it has become an essential requirement for any chess master to memorize thousands of these games. Understandably, some players say that this database has ruined chess.
Today, high-level chess games proceed very quickly as the players run through the moves of a game that both players know has already happened. This will continue until the game reaches the point where both parties recognize that the particular combination in question has not been played before. This is the point at which chess commentators will remark that the game is now ‘leaving the book’.
Up to this point, the moves have been largely made based on the rigorous study of thousands of chess games which have now sunk in to the instinctive level of implicit memory. It’s often said that chess players recognize a pattern on a chess board like most people identify a face - they recognize it automatically and often know how to proceed in an instant.
What is interesting about this moment is that within the strictly rule governed arena of chess, the player in question now has a profound sense of freedom. All the different possibilities are open to him, but not only that. His years of training and complex implicit memory of the game allow him to meet this freedom in an informed and enriched way. In short, a novice could not sit down at the chess table to make the next move and experience that kind of freedom in the same way a grandmaster does.
Two Concepts of Liberty
The dilemma of these two versions of freedom is not exclusive to BMX riding. In his lecture Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin identified a tension between two notions of political freedom.Negative Liberty, he argues, is the freedom from interference by other people – the idea that you can do whatever you want.
Positive Liberty, in contrast is about having the power and resources to fulfill your potential. This is achieved through a process of self-mastery and the removal of structural limitations in society. For example, you may be perfectly free to act however you want to (Negative Liberty), but at the same time your potential may be inhibited by structural problems such as poverty, classism or racism (a lack of Positive Liberty).
As Adam Curtis’ documentary The Trap concludes, historical attempts to promote Positive Liberty have resulted in a society’s personal freedoms being infringed. On the other hand, he remarks that societies which strive towards an ideal of Negative Liberty tend to lose a sense of meaning or purpose. As Berlin concludes, both concepts of liberty exist as valid but unattainable ideals in modern society.
A similar thing can be said of the two concepts of freestyle in BMX. While we would all uphold the principle of freedom from interference in riding, it is also important to recognize that many riders who have achieved the highest level in our sport have done so through a meticulous project of self-mastery. They have imposed strict rules on themselves and through this process, it could be argued, have developed a deep meaning and purpose from riding. The reward for all the hours of practice and sacrifice are the fleeting instants of Freestyle Flow, where the rules and trained techniques fall away from one’s mind, leaving the precious moments of creativity that we call Art.
Further reading and listening:
Radiolab Podcast: Games
The Trap documentary by Adam Curtis
Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin