This is my reply to The Pareto principle and progress: playing the percentages in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by The Jiu Jitsu Laboratory. Read that first to get what I’m talking about here.

If I understood it correctly, the Pareto principle states that 80% of the jiu-jitsu techniques are owned by the wealthiest 20% of Italians…

I liked Jiu Jitsu Laboratory’s article overall, because it raises good points about how to make the most of your training. It is easy to go flying off in every direction, and sometimes you need to be brought back down to the ground.

Jiu Jitsu Lab shares my skepticism of the 80/20 “rule” truly being a rule. Like he pointed out, it’s overreaching to apply an economic ratio for Italian wealth to every other aspect of life, BJJ included. 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 Occupy movement! Someone get Malcolm Gladwell’s agent on the phone!

What is more valuable is the idea that a small percentage often has a greater effect than the majority. Applying this to BJJ, it encourages you to find those moves that give you most of your success and investing time and attention in them. No one is going to be able to make full use 100% of the techniques they learn. 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.

Jiu Jitsu Lab’s point about the definition of “the basics” being nebulous is a good one. Everyone “knows” what the basics are, but no one can completely agree on them. We all get that some moves are more important than others, and some are better to teach to beginners than others. Maybe they are what Helio laid out as his curriculum, or maybe they aren’t.

Let’s look a move that is taken for granted as a basic in all grappling arts: the bridge. As universal as it’s assumed to be, you can find different opinions on it.

At the Carlos Machado seminar I attended, he confessed he never used the upa escape from mount. He just didn’t like it and felt it was too much work. He did a mount escape that rolled the guy over, but it was based more on sideways hip movement (circling under them) and a little bump, but not truly bridging.

Rickson, per what I’ve been shown by a few of his students, does the complete opposite. He wants them bridging all the way off the top of their head like a wrestler. This is in line with his “connect your entire body to the movement” philosophy. (Personally, my back and neck aren’t strong enough to do this.)

Like Carlos, Michael Jen made similar statements about his personal grappling system not really using a true bridge. To quote him:

You can definitely become proficient without a strong bridge. You need to be able to do a general bridging motion as far as just lifting your hips. However, you do not need to have the power bridge to bail your opponent over in order to have an effective game.

In fact, my BJJ game does not rely on strong bridging ability. It hate bridging and avoid doing it if possible. I had a bulging disc in my low back and I really lack flexibility in my back as far as bridging. When I try to arch back, my wife teases me and calls it a “broken coffee table” rather than a bridge.

When it comes to my side mount escaping system, I never bridge my opponent over. I only use small bridging motions to create space or momentum.

Yeah, I do wish that I made a better bridge. That is just like how I wish I could put both of my feet behind my head. Though developing flexibility like that would be very beneficial, I prefer to spend my time developing technique that is less attribute oriented.

Roy Harris (another Joe Moreira black belt like Jen) is the complete opposite, claiming the upa is the most important fundamental move that he built his grappling around.

Roy Harris once wrote an interesting article about how he doesn’t believe it’s possible to train without attributes, though he includes sensitivity and timing as attributes (which some debate.) Michael Jen, a peer of Harris’, makes similar points about how no one truly trains with zero strength and flexibility unless they are a corpse. The goal is, of course, to limit and reduce the amount of strength, flexibility and other physical factors as much as possible.

One definition for “the basics” that people aren’t always aware they are using is “those moves I learned first.” I actually have no problem with this approach as long it’s successful. It works if they were good moves and your instructor knew what he was doing. But it doesn’t answer why you learned them first. Did your instructor have a thoughtful reason, or was it just what he learned first too?

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 the only time they could make it. He warned them that the techniques wouldn’t be “basic”, but 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.

A BJJ teacher once posted online about how he teaches the butterfly guard to beginners for their first trial class. This was controversial, but his argument was that it was less awkward than making them close guard on strangers, and it taught them to make space and safely stand up, which he felt was an important lesson especially if they never came to another class.

My perspective is that as long as a technique is built on the “true” basics of leverage, positioning, momentum, timing, balance (or off-balancing), etc. and it deals with situations that would realistically come up, then it is as basic as you want it to be. I’ve had white belts doing the reverse omoplata with no problems. They just need to understand how and when it works (and when it doesn’t work). Of course, just because they can do it, it doesn’t mean it’s the most important skill for them to be learning at the time.

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 jiu-jitsu. Students need something to do, and that’s going to be practicing a technique (or at least a “movement” of some kind.) As an instructor, I can teach those techniques I feel best impart an understanding (or at least 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

Per those three points, 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?

Headlock escapes are basic moves that are needed in street fights and white belt matches that are never needed in any of those other situations.

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?

The traditional standard of teaching moves that work for a weaker, smaller person against a bigger, stronger opponent is one I agree is valuable. But what are its limits? How much smaller and weaker or bigger and stronger are we talking about? Everything breaks down at some point.

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.