Turtle Power: The Art of Using the Turtle Position Effectively
Few positions create as much ire for coaches and as much confusion for new students as the bottom Turtle. We go there to feel safe, and it seems really safe, until it is not, and then it can be a death trap. White belts [and new blue belts] are often scolded every single time they turtle up beneath a sparring partner: Do not give up your back! Face your opponent! You are giving up an advantage point!
When I asked BJJ Fanatic Chris Haueter about my natural predisposition to go to the position at a seminar in Iceland, he spent the entire session showing us why it is a position of weakness for people for have no other guard, and asserted that it would end badly for you in the streets. He was right. He showed the class how to get back out of Turtle as quickly as possible, and frankly, I was ready to abandon the position forever. Then Priit Mihkelson came along and made me rethink applications for the Turtle and how to reincorporate it into my blue belt game. No concepts are absolute in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The Turtle has primarily been used as a defensive position in sport Judo and wrestling. In fact, due to the rule sets in those martial arts, the Turtle can be a formidable way to defend and attack. Once you open up the option of choking an opponent or throw a kimono with collars into the mix, the position becomes a ticking timebomb for the jiu jitsu player. It should also be noted that in IBJJF rules, going to Turtle usually results in an advantage point going to your opponent.
Obviously, when upper belt matches often hang on a single advantage point, going to Turtle is seen as a death sentence, but in the lower echelons matches tend to be won on points alone. Therefore, if you can use the position to effectively hinder a points position transition from your opponent or to sweep him so that you gain the points, then that advantage point is less important in the overall scheme of things.
Turtle Neck by Priit Mihkelson
Another reason to incorporate the Turtle position into your sparring game comes from the simple fact that you may need a way to load bear a 250 pound opponent from time to time. I am one of the smallest players in my gym, and I also have a kidney disease that makes heavy loads a very bad situation. However, once I turtle up, I can usually alleviate all of the pressure and begin to roll to disrupt my opponent’s base to make my escape or to plan an attack. In the early days of your jiu jitsu journey, survival can be the only aspiration, and despite the idea that it may be better for your long term development to avoid a position where you might give up your back, during a long sparring session during a long week of training a small respite in Turtle may be what keeps you on the mats until you gain the skills you need to escape and avoid such situations altogether.
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There are two Fanatics whose work focuses on the Turtle: Eduardo Telles and Priit Mihkelson. Both of them are connaisseur in the position’s offerings to the savy player and both approach their instruction in unique, but perhaps complementary manners. One is stern and earnest, while the other is playful and laissez-faire. If I were beginning my exploration of the position, then I would procure whichever style of instruction you hope for. I would say that with Telles’ work you see the positions more quickly, but that Mihkelson’s approach is more comprehensive and the three separate video series do create a systematic approach that is necessary for a long-term approach. Personally, I started with the Eduardo Telles video first, simply because the other one was not yet created. I took one technique and practiced it continuously for a month before moving on to the next one. With Priit’s work I did the same, but it was not until I saw the system as a whole that it really began to bear fruit for me.
Priit’s latest offering, The Sitting Turtle, is truly one of those moments in jiu jitsu when you ask “Why has no one showed me this ever before?” I had been working through his other two videos, Protecting & Generating Dynamic Defense From the Turtle and Grilled Chicken Guard, when I visited his academy, 3D Treening in Estonia. There, both he and Chris Paines introduced the position that he was calling “Panda” within the context of a system of positions relating to the Turtle. My mind was blown.
Clock Choke Defense by Priit Mihkelson
Essentially, the Jitsvulcan stayed true to his Star Trek nickname and had found a way to conceptualize the Turtle position as three-dimensional chess just like Spock might do. Start in Turtle, half flip to Running Man, full flip to Grilled Chicken, rotate upwards to Sitting Turtle [aka Panda] and a whole new series of options open up to the player who needs to survive and attack simultaneously. Not only did this revelation affect how I played the position, but it also made me reconceptualize all of the common positions and wonder what would happen if I apply three-dimensional theory to all of them. Are there other secret positions and attacks yet to be discovered?
You might be interested in The Panda Guard by Nikki Sullivan.
The flipside to the position as taught by Mihkelson is that the relative safety for the student can become seductive. Once you master these transitions, especially as a white belt, you could be lured into believing that jiu jitsu is just about survival through this sequence, and that can be truly off-putting to sparring partners and coaches. The purpose of jiu jitsu is not simply to survive by rolling into a safe ball, but rather use that brief safety as a way to create openings to move and attack. For the sake of amusement, I spent an entire roll transitioning between the positions against a heavy purple belt. He was super-frustrated by the end of the round, and it was a lot of fun for me to do once, but I was still left with the reality that I had not been able to find my opening to escape or improve my position. Indeed, during our next roll I followed Chris Haueter’s assertion to stand up and immediately hit a guillotine against the same purple belt.
Therefore, the temptation to merely ball up, frustrate and survive should be tempered with the realization that without a ruleset this might not be wise to use as your sole option.
In The Turtle Guard Revisited, Eduardo Telles shares his approach to the Turtle game in a positive and lighthearted manner. For fans of the ultimate uke, Placido, he is Telles’ partner for the techniques, and the whole video is rather fun to watch. Telles focuses on transitions and ways to use the Turtle as a way to obscure your true intentions. The first thing that you will notice about Telles is the ease of flow in his movements. He knows the options that his opponent has and he also knows that he has answers to attacks like the Clock Choke, the Headlock, the Crucifix and the Kimura. The one challenge that a new player will have when trying to play this style of game is that you will be choked and submitted many, many times before you gain the sensitivity to know what your opponent is doing or planning to do to answer your Turtle move on the chessboard of the mats.
Side Control to Steamroller by Eduardo Telles
In the end, the Turtle is a key position in any fledgling game. Ignoring it will be at your peril, because while it may not be everyone’s ideal spot to play from, it is a spot where we all end up at the worst of moments. Would you rather be prepared with a collection of options or would you prefer to take your chances when your opponent has your back within grasp? In my case, I had my coach instruct me to go to Turtle at the World Masters this year, so one never knows from where you will have to fight out of to survive the day and deny your opponent precious points.
The Turtle Guard Revisited By Eduardo Telles gives you a behind the scene look at one of Jiu-Jitsu’s most INNOVATIVE practitioners. Take your Defensive Turtle Guard and Transform it into an unstoppable Attacking Turtle Guard with the help of Eduardo Telles! Become Impassable, and simultaneously Attack your opponent and leave them guessing all the way to the FINISH!