HomeI was recently pointed to a blog post about applying the Pareto (80/20) principle to BJJ. Seeing as my gym is named for this principle, a response seems appropriate.

The idea behind the Pareto principle is asymmetry. Obviously, not everything is the same. There are a small number of good things, a large number of mediocre things and a small number of bad things.

In the martial arts world, the theory is that 20% of all techniques account for 80% of success

The above quote from that blog post illustrates the mistake that many people make when trying to apply the 80/20 principle to BJJ.

There are fewer good techniques than there are mediocre and bad techniques. And good techniques, by definition, are those that give success. So the quote is correct but it’s not the whole story.

The missing piece of the puzzle is that techniques only account for about 10% (90% of statistics are made up on the spot) of the total movement in a roll. Think about that for a second.

Using the most effective (or highest percentage) techniques will only improve your jiu-jitsu up to a maximum of 10% if we use my made up number from before.

Most people are taught BJJ purely as a collection of techniques, which leads them to think that BJJ is only a collection of techniques. Ironically, this is why BJJ is so successful. A mediocre instructor who teaches bad techniques can only harm an athelete’s performance by 10%. As there are obviously fewer good instructors, most good athletes are skilled despite their instructor not because of him.

So what is the 90% of BJJ that isn’t techniques? It’s:

  • predicting the way your opponent is likely to move
  • timing
  • positioning
  • posture
  • grips
  • pressure

These skills are difficult to teach, which is why most instructors don’t/can’t attempt it. The good news is that these skills will automatically develop during rolling.

Getting back to Pareto. To get good at BJJ, you focus your time developing the skills that will have the biggest benefit. This means alive training with progressive resistance.

The best way to develop these necessary skills is with a partner who gives you appropriate resistance. Your partner should try to make you feel challenged, not bored or frustrated.

Your partner will vary the type / level of resistance as you drill.

e.g. If drilling a takedown, your partner will give different resistance each time. Sometimes moving back, sometimes turning left, sometimes right. Sometimes pushing your head, othertimes wrapping the body. Sometimes doing nothing at all.

The secret to applying the Pareto principle to BJJ is not what you train. It’s how you train.

The 80/20 principle is the observation that for many events, 80% of the results come from only 20% of the effort.

This principle is used successfully in many industries, from business to engineering, to get the most result for the least effort. Without the luxury of limitless resources, we must use the resources we do have wisely to get the most “bang for the buck”.

We can use this principle as a guide for how to learn, and get better at BJJ. By learning the “best” stuff first we maximise our progress.

For example, if there are 10 moves to learn and 10 hours available, how should we best structure our training? The naive, but common, approach is to simply allocate one hour to each move. This way the practitioner gains equal experience with each move, regardless of that move’s overall effectiveness.

We need to acknowledge that all moves are not equally effective. Rather than one hour per move, allocate say 6 hours to the 2 best moves, and share the remaining 4 hours between the 8 less effective moves. Then apply the 80/20 principle again on these 8 moves, so the more effective moves gets apportioned more time than the less effective ones. The actual numbers in this example aren’t set in stone, but you get the idea. More time is spent on the effective moves, while less time is spent on the not-so-effective moves.

BJJ provides an easy way to distinguish between more effective and less effective (also called high percentage and low percentage) moves — rolling. Averaging over many rolls, high percentage moves are those that are successfully completed more often than low percentage ones. It is these high percentage moves that you should learn first and spend the most time on. If you have extra time and the inclination, you can then invest in the low percentage moves.

The 80/20 principle gives us a guide for beginning to learn BJJ. First focus on the high percentage moves. Only once you have proficiency with these should you move on to the low percentage moves.

See Misapplying the Pareto Principle for more details.