The Pareto Principle in Sports Performance: Why Less is More
Updated: May 5
The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In the early 20th century, he recognised that only 20% of the population owned 80% of Italian land.
Intrigued by this unequal distribution of resources, he found a similar pattern in other fields. Distributions of income, sales, and even peas in a pod also reflected this trend, whereby a small number typically account for the majority.
While not an exact science, it is a useful concept. It helps us to reflect on the relative importance of different factors. Let’s consider the Pareto Principle within the context of sports performance.
The Pareto Principle across Sports Science Domains
According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of results will come from 20% of the inputs. So for each domain of sports performance we should identify these inputs. This can guide our time management.
The principle is also illustrated by the “big rocks and pebbles” metaphor. Put the big rocks (i.e. the important tasks) in the jar first. Then, you're left with space to fill with the pebbles. Start with the pebbles and the big rocks will not fit.
Whether you are a sports scientist, strength and conditioning coach, data analyst, nutritionist, psychology and mental skills practitioner, or sports medicine professional, consider everything you do throughout the week in your role. Write down a list. Next, identify the key tasks. What are the responsibilities that impact player performance and/or availability most? Below are my thoughts…
Sports science spans a broad area, of course. Consider all the potential ways we could spend our time in this role: analysing player tracking data, testing and screening athletes, collecting subjective information, technology calibration and maintenance, talking with players, meeting with staff, nutrition preparation and delivery, and more…
What is the biggest rock? Relationships.
Even with the latest and greatest research consumed, an athlete will not listen to your suggestion if they do not have a relationship with you. You may have clean data, analysed with the most efficient code you’ve ever written, in a statistically-sound methodology. But coaches and colleagues will not buy-in to your interventions if they do not have a relationship with you.
We love to read and analyse data. But if we spend too much time with our faces in our laptops or books, we miss out on precious interactions. Relationships are the foundation upon which communication takes place.
In load monitoring, we argue about the most suitable metrics, timeframes, and calculations to use. We drill down into drills/periods, the peak demands, the hotly-debated “worst case scenario”, all to try to understand the most intense moments on a granular level.
Yet for me, the team’s schedule is one of our Pareto Principle tasks, certainly in relation to load management. I’ve written previously about how a team’s calendar can provide a competitive advantage. Or disadvantage.
You can plan the training load across a whole bucket of parameters, the drill minutes down to the second, the playing areas to a millimetre … but if the team has made poor decisions on the overall calendar then the training load is applied onto a shaky foundation.
Of course it goes without saying that relationships are one of, if not the most important big rock across all of these domains. But let’s consider some of the other big rocks.
How does the Pareto Principle relate to physical preparation? What are the 20% of tasks that determine 80% of the outcome? I’m sure this would be hotly debated in the Strength and Conditioning community, like most topics!
I would suggest individualised training programmes, designed to the athletic needs of the individual, their playing demands, injury history, and physical capacity profiling, would be one for professional team sports.
I would also put forward training intent as a factor that can have a greater influence on outcomes. Even with a well-crafted, individualised training programme, if athletes are not executing it with intent, training responses and subsequent adaptations will not be optimised.
But, I’m interested in your thoughts? Do you think there are bigger rocks?
As ever my bias is to professional team sports. But of course, the context of the environment will influence the Pareto Principle. For instance, at a developmental level, the big rocks might be exposure to foundational movement skills and consistent strength training to build training age. These however, may change across different levels when drilling down either further.
The recovery field is abundant with modalities and fads. Yet, this is an area where the bigger rocks are actually widely acknowledged. By practitioners, at least.
Sleep and nutrition. The big rocks of recovery. The 20% that probably accounts for 80%.
And we can break those areas down further. With sleep, perhaps a consistent sleep routine (admittedly very difficult for elite athletes) and a suitable environment (cold, dark, and minimal technology) would be the biggest influence.
Despite being another field plagued with fads and misinformation, the big rocks remain eating real foods (i.e. avoiding processed foods) and consuming a suitable macronutrient distribution.
But Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater!
So, those are our big rocks. Well, unless you disagree? They are just my thoughts, of course.
Armed with such information, practitioners can go to their bosses and tell them they’ll only be focussing on those areas! They’ll work 20% of their hours but still expect to receive 80% of their salary… Maybe not...
Nevertheless, there is still a need and an interest in the pebbles, and the grains of sands too. The point of reflecting on this principle is to consider the respective time and energy you put into the big rocks. Given their proportionally greater impact on outcomes, are sufficient resources and headspace being given to these areas? But don't forget your ability to zoom in on the detail and zoom back out to the big picture.
The Pareto Principle can be a useful concept for staff supporting athletes in their pursuit of performance. It can be used to identify the big rocks that influence performance outcomes, and to remind practitioners to prioritise those areas. It does not discount the importance of innovation, nor for striving for marginal gains around performance, but serves as a reminder to:
“Keep the main thing the main thing” - Stephen Covey