Ninja Flips 101: Inside the World of Martial Arts Tricking

Phill Gibbs. Hanging around.

Source Photo courtesy of Invincible Tricking

Why you should care

Because flying through the air with the greatest of ease ain’t so easy. 

I was never exactly the risk-taking type. At age 3, playground slides were far too intimidating for me to enjoy. At age 7, I watched from a riverbank as my family took turns leaping from a low tree branch into the water. And at age 9, my mom and younger brother convinced me to ride Splash Mountain at Disney World, where I sat paralyzed in the bobbing cart like a man awaiting execution. 

And yet, one of the most unregulated and dangerous extreme sports on the planet? I’m doing it. 

Martial arts tricking, or just “tricking,” is what you’d get if martial arts, gymnastics and break-dancing all got together and made a weird, hyperactive baby. It’s an explosive, beautiful blend of kicks, flips and twists — part sport, part art form; a cousin of capoeira and freerunning. Trickers are usually hired to do stunts and fight choreography for all the big superhero movies and TV shows.

But for me it all started at age 19, when I went to a Red Bull–sponsored tricking competition in Atlanta. Competitors flew through the air, miraculous geometries of the body flashing into and back out of existence. Personality wise, they were goofy and laid-back, a group of exuberant doers to counterbalance my world of angsty college thinkers. 

That settled it. I wanted, needed, to become a tricker. 

The instant my feet touched the ground, I heard a sickening series of rips and pops. 

The problem was, tricking is not exactly safe. And not the affected “not exactly safe” of roller coasters, but the very real danger of hurling your body into space and hoping for the best. Unfortunately, the sport remains so underground that trickers are still figuring out what they can safely do. Trickers have broken their backs. Trickers have broken their necks. 

Regardless, I began inching my way toward harder skills, taking risks the old me could never have imagined. During sessions I would look down at my palms, finding a flurry of purple indents where I was digging my fingernails into my flesh out of fear. 


But I got better. I remember one late-night session in particular, when I landed an especially difficult combination of moves. As I threw my arms up in sweaty triumph, a swarm of my friends’ bodies engulfed me in a mob of hugs and cheers. We all ended up toppling onto the ground, laughing and exhausted. 

And then one day, I messed up. 

My local gymnastics facility was hosting an event for families to come and see what tricking was all about, and with dozens of parents and wide-eyed 6-year-olds watching, I went for a double corkscrew. It’s a difficult move, but one I had landed many times. 

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Michael Guthrie makes a move.

Source photo courtesy of Invincible Tricking

The instant my feet touched the ground, I heard a sickening series of rips and pops. 

I was carried into a back room, where my left ankle swelled into a grotesque purple caricature of itself. And just like that, I was 7 years old again, terrified and in excruciating pain. 

I soon found out it was broken and torn in a stunning variety of ways, not to mention the massive cartilage damage and the half-inch shard of bone that snapped off from the ankle entirely. Major surgery was scheduled for the following week. 

Later, after months and months of physical therapy, I was finally faced with a choice: Do I really want to go back to tricking? At what point is the risk just … not worth it? 

But I realized that, more than anything else ever, tricking forced me to face danger and carry on anyway. I had learned to neither ignore nor submit to that voice in my head saying, “You might not make it” — but to reply, “I know, isn’t it exciting?” 


That’s the mentality I had used to go up and talk to a cute girl in the bookstore. That’s the mindset I needed to start baring my deepest thoughts and feelings on the Invincible Tricking blog. Within a year, I would use it to move across the country for a job that barely paid me enough for food and rent. 

I realized that risk is worthwhile not because of the outcome or the payoff, but because of the experience of risk itself. It allows you to engage with who and what you really are. When you claw through the fear and the pain, at the bottom of the well you find your own human heart, warm and beating with the ecstatic rush of life, and the awareness that it won’t last forever. 

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Bailey Payne taking flight.

Source Photo courtesy of Invincible Tricking

And if you’re not risking anything, you forget what that feels like. There are no stakes, no struggle, no meaning. Life is reduced to a sterile act of observation, sitting inside a cerebrum that’s watching — watching and thinking, but not feeling a damn thing. 

So, yes, I went back to tricking. It took a while, but I’m finally back to full power. 

And on a recent trip to Coney Island, I found myself lifting toward the clouds on a roller coaster. As we tilted up into the zenith, I grinned over at my tricking buddies beside me. Then we looked down, reached for the sky and shouted defiantly into the descent.

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