The Pareto principle and progress: playing the percentages in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

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In 1906 an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto identified that 80% of all of the land in Italy was owned by a mere 20% of the people. Pareto’s work may have had little impact outside of the field of economics had it not been for Joseph M. Juran, a prolific management theorist who rediscovered Pareto’s ideas in the 1930’s and applied them to quality management under the memorable phrase, “the vital few and the trivial many.”

Juran’s work, in turn, has been appropriated by a host of self-help gurus seeking to help people better deal with time management in an increasingly complex world. A notable interpretation of Juran’s ideas can be seen in the New York Times best-seller The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (as an aside, here’s Ferriss being thrown on his head by everyone’s favourite Jiu Jitsu and MMA trainer Dave Camirillo).

As a skeptical person, I find myself often chafing against anything marketed as a “principle” or a “rule” that will make our lives easier and better. And this idea seems too simple and intuitive at first glance to warrant deep investigation. But despite its popularity with self-help readers and Oprah viewers (not too much separation on the Venn diagram there), is “the 80/20 rule,” also known as the Pareto principle, something that can help us with our everyday life? More importantly, is it something that can help us get better at Jiu Jitsu faster?

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If Marcelo Garcia does it, it’s high-percentage.

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To answer the question we have to examine how the Pareto principle works. Similar to turn-of-the-century land ownership in Italy, the idea is that in many systems there is inequality between causes and effects. Real-world examples include that 80% of all complaints will come from 20% of customers, and that 80% of sales will be made by 20% of staff. In the martial arts world, the theory is that 20% of all techniques account for 80% of success, therefore 80% of training should be built around those 20% of techniques.

This concept may seem obvious to most people. That there are high- and low- percentage techniques is not revelatory to anyone. Yet there does seem to be a need to reign in Jiu Jitsu practitioners desire to practice the latest gimmicky or flashy moves they’ve seen on the internet (with blogs like this one being the main culprit in propagating potentially lower-percentage moves).

An additional criticism of this approach is the ability to, through diligent practice, turn any technique into a high percentage maneuver. If at any one decision node in Jiu Jitsu a student can drill the less probable technique to the point where they develop the sensitivity and skill to make it as high-percentage as the more obvious and expected technique, does this contradict the idea of the 80/20? Adherents to the Pareto principal would say no. If it takes you significantly longer to make the less probable option as successful as the high-percentage technique, than this is time you could be using to work on additional techniques in your repertoire.

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What percentage of his time did Roger train his cross collar choke? 

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But what are these 20% of techniques on which we should focus? The Mendes brothers are winning World Championships with “advanced” techniques such as leg drags and berimbolos, so surely these techniques should be included. Yet Roger Gracie is winning even more championships with “basic” Jiu Jitsu like collar chokes from mount. Where does the list start and end? There is little agreement on what constitutes the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu. It is an ever-evolving art with techniques that are increasingly diversified from its self-defense origins. When flipped on its head, the Pareto principle actually gives us the answer. By studying the most-frequently used techniques used to win high-level Jiu Jitsu competitions we can create a hierarchy of techniques sorted from highest to lowest percentage of successful application.

According to John Danaher, the enigmatic instructor at Renzo Gracie NYC, high percentage techniques are those that have the greatest effectiveness for the least amount of exertion, and have the greatest attempt to success ratio (ASR). According to an account of Danaher’s recent NYC seminar from the folks at Submission Control:

In John’s mind, for a technique to be defined as a “high percentage” move, the technique must adhere strictly to the following three principles: 1) the technique must work for anyone at any proficiency level, 2) the technique must work for anyone who is competing at any weight class, and 3) the technique must work for any body type (Source: Submission Control).

Danaher provided an empirical breakdown of what he considered high-percentage techniques from the annals of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu history, including the cross collar choke from mount and butterfly, lapel choke from the back, and an armbar from mount when the opponent defends the collar choke. Of course Danaher used only Japanese terminology for each technique, in keeping with his appreciation for the historical context of modern day Jiu Jitsu.

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Gianni Grippo shows us that Jiu Jitsu is quickly evolving. Can you keep up? 

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There is no single list of high-percentage techniques, making this concept often vague in the constantly evolving world of Jiu Jitsu techniques and strategies. Most can point to the common submissions seen in MMA and BJJ competitions: the rear naked choke, armbar, triangle choke, etc., as examples of high-percentage moves. But when one must consider every possible sweep, guard pass and transition it becomes exponentially more difficult to rank, requiring much deeper analysis of Jiu Jitsu.  This type of analysis was described by Lloyd Irvin in his appearance on The Fightworks Podcast on July 11, 2010:

“I have a chart, that has a list of the highest percentage submissions, transitions, set-ups in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu history, looking at all the world championships, looking at all the Pan Ams, looking at all the high level black belt tournaments. What transitions, submissions and sequences work the majority of the time. We work only those things.” (Source: Fightworks Podcast transcript)

From Irvin’s analysis of successful Judo and Jiu Jitsu athletes, the percentage of techniques used to win at the highest levels of the sport may be significantly less than 20%. For example, he cites that many champions like Márcio “Pé de Pano” Cruz usually have one go-to technique that they attempt to utilize in every match. For Pé de Pano it was the omoplata, but this differs for each athlete. So a decision must be made: do you as a Jiu Jitsu practitioner focus on the statistically most prevalent techniques or lesser percentage techniques that will catch your opponent off-guard.

In the 2010 World Jiu Jitsu Championships the most frequent submission by an overwhelming percentage was the bow-and-arrow choke from the back. Should you put the majority of your time into perfecting the bow-and-arrow or attempt a unique pathway, like rolling into a leg lock from the back in order to surprise an opponent? If one was to follow the Pareto principle, the answer would be to spend 80% of your drilling time on the back focusing on the choke.

The problem with focusing too heavily on the Pareto principle, however, is that our high-percentage techniques still only get us to 80%. For athletes who really want to excel, a different percentage is required: the 10%. In a Men’s Health article in 2008 by Mike Zimmerman, David Beckham’s coach at LA Galaxy revealed what he called “the difference maker.”

“Just about every soccer player reaches the same level of cardio fitness. But it’s the extra things you do — that last 10 percent — that can separate one player or one team from another. David understands this better than anyone.” (Source: Men’s Health)

For Beckham, it was his focus on explosiveness and power in a game where 90% of the play is based around cardiovascular fitness. As a Jiu Jitsu athlete, where is your extra 10% going to come from? It could be working on your explosiveness and anaerobic fitness like Beckham in a sport that is highly isometric. It could be improving your takedowns even though the vast majority of Jiu Jitsu takes place on the ground. It could be working on transitions from the bow-and-arrow to the armbar in case 10% of opponents are able to escape the choke. Just don’t lose sight of where the majority of your success will come from.

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Cobrinha knows that choking from the back will always be high-percentage. 

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The 80-20 rule is not set in stone. There are no properties of these numbers that make them unique. Instead it is a general guide that allows us to look objectively at our Jiu Jitsu practice and focus our energies where they will have the most benefit. It may be that 90% of the success in your Jiu Jitsu comes from 15% of techniques. There’s no reason this ratio must add up to 100, even though the principle appears more intuitive if this is the case. Additionally if the 80-20 rule has merit, it also means that 4% of techniques can account for 64% of one’s success in Jiu Jitsu. Without getting too caught up in the mathematics behind this phenomenon (a log 4 power law), athletes should take note of the Pareto principle as incentive to focus on the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu.

Fundamental techniques are important even if they are amorphous. Take a look at your own game and the game of your coaches. Watch competition footage of athletes with a similar body type and game. From these reference points it is possible to develop a list of techniques that you consider fundamental to your own development. To get the most of this approach, it’s important to be realistic about the type of scenarios you will encounter. If you only face opponents who pass on their knees, learning fancy reverse de la Riva techniques might not be the best use of your time. Instead spend the majority of your time developing a solid arsenal of high-percentage techniques from the positions that you commonly face. Only then is it advisable to work on the extra 10% that will allow you to excel over your competition.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Pareto principle and progress: playing the percentages in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

  1. The Pareto principle defiantly has its applications, it seems to be true of strength and conditioning theory. The idea that 80% of your results come from 20% of your training stimulus. or conversely get 80% of your training doing quality work allowing you to spend the last 20 doing more frivolous activities!

  2. Amar

    Hey, thanks for responding to my email back in December. The reason I approached you about guard passing with exactly this concept in mind. I’m a big fan of the 4 Hour Work Week including the 80/20 principle and I was hoping to identify 1 or 2 high percentage guard passes to really focus on at the most basic level right from the very start of my BJJ career. Figured it’d go a long way in the future. Good to see someone way more advanced thinking about the game the same way.

    Thanks for the post, it’s a really good one.

    • Hey Amar, thank you for your e-mail. I always like hearing about what others are thinking about during their development. Did you figure out the guard passes you wanted to work on?

      • Amar

        Yes, the two I identified as being highly likely to successfully take me to a high level (brown belt +) were the Knee Slide Pass you responded to me about and the single underhook pass (both from JJU and a variation of it taught at my school).

        I’m working on other passes as well obviously but I make it a point to try each of the two while rolling with just about every opponent I face as well as paying particular attention to the details and feedback I receive on the two. So far it’s working pretty well and I’m beginning to consistently pass other white belts guards (it’s my third month) as well as occasionally getting by blue belt guards (this is much more rare and only happens with the knee slide pass at the moment).

        Thanks again for the input.

  3. If I understood this correctly, the Pareto principle states that 80% of the jiu-jitsu techniques are owned by 20% of the wealthy Italians…

    Seeing the title of this article, I guessed you’d also read about the John Danaher seminar, and it looks like I was right. The first time I heard about the 80/20 “rule” was reading something by a self help book guru (or was it Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point?) I looked it up again over the weekend after reading Danaher’s comment.

    It’s a nice idea, but like you pointed out, it’s overreaching to apply a economic ratio for Italian wealth to every other aspect of life. It may have been an accurate description of the situation at the time, but it’s not a scientific principle that can be applied to everything. Hey, maybe we can make up a 99/1 ratio thanks to the current sociopolitical climate!

    But I do like that it encourages finding those moves that give you most of your success and investing time and attention in them. Few people are going to be able to make full use 100% of the techniques they learn (and they probably shouldn’t if they could.) They are better off finding what works for them most of the time, and then finding what details in those moves they can further improve.

    Your point about the definition of “the basics” being nebulous is a good one. Leo Kirby, a brown belt under Marcelo, has a funny story about that. He had a white belt end up training with him at his “work on DVD moves” open mats because that all they could make it to. He warned them that the techniques wouldn’t be “basic” and they didn’t care. So they learned x-guard, armdrags, etc. from Marcelo DVDs. (Helio turns in his grave.) But later when Leo saw them in a normal class, they were doing x-guard fine against other beginners. That’s when he decided that “the basics” were just whatever you learned first.

    My perspective is similar, because I think as long as a technique is built on the “true” basics of leverage, positioning, timing, balance (or off balancing), etc. then it is as basic as you want it to be. I’ve got white belts doing the reverse omoplata with no problems. They just need to understand how it works (and when it doesn’t work) and do the right thing.

    • The funny thing is, I was going to see if you’d be interested in writing a rebuttal or additional comments for this post. Guess I don’t need to now.

      Edit: The Danaher seminar article came out a few days after I started working on this article. It was great to be able to quote one of the best about this idea.

      • Now to turn my logic on itself, I can’t teach “basic” concepts like momentum and leverage by standing in front of a class and saying “F = ma! M = Fd!” We’re not doing a physics class, we’re doing BJJ. Students need something to do, and that’s going to be practicing a technique (or at least a “movement” of some kind.) As a teacher, I can teach those techniques I feel best impart an understanding (or at least a a practical application) of these concepts.

        We can apply different reasoning to what makes certain moves “advanced” or “basic”. Let’s take Danaher’s rules for what he calls a basic technique:

        1) the technique must work for anyone at any proficiency level
        2) the technique must work for anyone who is competing at any weight class
        3) the technique must work for any body type

        Using those three points, we can say the heelhook is a basic move, at least in an abstract sense. But at the same time, few instructors would recommend teaching heelhooks to beginners because “it’s a basic”. We understand it takes a sensitivity that beginners don’t have (unless we don’t care about injuries.) To qualify as basic or not, do we need to consider more attributes like balance, coordination and timing?

        I consider standing up to break closed guard a “basic” technique because I learned it my first day (as many white belts at my gym have), but it took me almost two years to be able to perform it without getting swept for trying. This breaks Danaher’s first rule, but I bet he teaches a similar move anyway (or has a way of arguing that it doesn’t break his rule.)

        We could also say that a basic move should be one that is going to be needed in more fights than a nonbasic move. But then we need to look at context. Are we talking about a street fight? White belts in sparring? Purple belts in a tournament? Black belts? MMA fight?

        Can an advanced move still have “basics” to it? People will call x-guard advanced, but it’s really just about using butterfly hooks and shifting your hips under their base. Does that justify teaching it to beginners or not?

        A headlock escape is a basic move that’s needed in street fights and white belt matches that is never needed in any of those other situations.

        But maybe we just worry about this stuff too much as nerdy white guys. Most black belts don’t care about this. Maybe they can explain underlying theories, or maybe they can’t. They just teach what they know works, and no one can argue with results.

    • Amar

      Hey Aesopian,

      Big fan of your blog as well. Ironically it was this blog and yours that I decided to contact for a little advice on getting started. Had two comments…

      First, not sure if you’re aware but your little icon on the blog reply has Brazilian misspelled. Just a FYI ;-)

      Second, I came to the same conclusion you mentioned in your response here that “‘the basics’ were just whatever you learned first.” That was one of the reasons I contacted you about which submissions were ideal for a white belt to build his game around. I realized that the basics were primarily whatever I learned and focused on in the beginning and I was trying to figure out if certain basics were more effective than others at high levels so I could choose those to make life easier later. It looks like the lesson to take away is to focus on getting really good at all the fundamentals while choosing a couple to really focus on. Doing so would appear to be what differentiates one individuals game from another. By the way, of all the basics you mentioned I’ve found the Kimura the most natural to catch people with. I’m hoping you’ll be writing an article about Amar “the Kimura” Ghose in a couple years ;-)

      Thanks again for responding to that,

      Amar

    • Amar

      This is in response to your reply on Turning the Logic on Itself (WP won’t let me respond directly to that):

      I don’t think the value in applying 80/20 to Jiu Jitsu is in developing some kind of secret more-effective-than-everyone-else type game.

      The value in 80/20 to Jiu Jitsu is in accelerating your learning and becoming more effective as quickly as possible. The concept is likely helpful up until Brown belt (maybe only until Purple). At that point (from what I understand) there are no shortcuts and trying something like 80/20 will only lead to opponents identifying that 20% weakness and shitting on you. At lower levels opponents won’t likely have the skill to take you on even if they realize what your focus/prowess is.

      Just my $0.02

  4. This is an excellent principle to apply.

    The problem with ALL martial arts is, over time they develop and refine more and more techniques around the same principle. So Taekwondo develops 50 different types of kicks, Ju-Jitsu develops 50 different types of chokes, Judo develops 50 different types of hip throw, Karate has 50 different blocks, etc.

    The problem with this is, they become 1 mile deep and 1 inch wide. As you say, you only need probably 3-4 Judo throws to master takedowns, 3-4 submissions and 3-4 kicks to be a fantastic all-round fighter. Ronda Rousey has shown how far you can go by mastering hip throws and an arm bar.

    he perfect martial art will take the 10% of high-percentage techniques from all martial arts and discard the rest. After all, why teach low percentage techniques at all?

  5. I think maybe in Jiu Jitsu the Pareto principle should be applied another way.
    Just as 80% of your income may come from 20% of your products, you are told to concentrate even more on developing and marketing those products.

    So if we look at Jiu Jitsu, we can;t just statistically look at whats working for everyone else, and maybe 80% or our success in technique (successful submission, sweeps etc) are coming from 20% of the moves we individually learn. So if I have a sick Scissor sweep that works 80% of the time, then i should continue to refine and drill that technique.
    As i progress I’m sure more advanced techniques will fall into the 80% success rate catagory.
    Did that make sense? I’m saying to make it individualized.

    • Good point, and something I’ve been playing with my own drilling. I had the opportunity to talk about this briefly with Rafa Mendes. Once we reach a certain level, most of our drilling will be refining and reinforcing our game, which is different for everyone.

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