18 Months of Turtling: A Jiujitsu Retrospective

Turtle - Wikipedia

I came to the turtle position systematically. As a white belt, one year into training, I had a grand vision for learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: I would break the gentle art down into six-month chunks, and spend each chunk focused on a single position.

I started with the half guard position back in early 2019. I picked half guard in part because it is perhaps the most common position in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu sparring. Like it or not, BJJ players find themselves in some half guard variation in nearly every roll.

I was also attracted to learning to play half guard because it was suggested by Reddit for old, inflexible guys. I have always been inflexible and am older every day––a perfect match! To advance my studies I purchased Lachlan Giles’s Half Guard Anthology.

Before I go on to the meat of this post, let me just say that I highly recommend the concentrated six-month method of learning half guard to new white belts. I cannot without reservation say the same about the turtle. Let me explain.

The Most Controversial Position in BJJ

The turtle is the most controversial position in BJJ. I thought about qualifying that statement with a “might be,” but no, it’s the most controversial.

“To begin with, formal IBJJF scoring punishes the turtle: If––starting from a turtle position––you maneuver and end up on top in a dominant side control position, you are awarded 0 points. Moreover, a turtle player allows his opponent to easily accrue “advantages.” From the IBJJF rules (courtesy of ATB):

An advantage is scored when a fundamental move is initiated but not fully completed, this could be a submission, sweep, take down or passing attempt.”

According to my understanding, a loose referee may give an advantage each time a turtler turtles.

IBJJF scoring, however, is just one aspect of controversy. There is also the “MMA guy” perspective: “If you turtle in MMA, I’m just going to hammer fist you in the back of the head.”

Good point.

Or the “in the streets guy” perspective: “If you turtle in the streets, I’m just going to soccer kick your face.”

Another good point.

And OK, bros, you’ve got a point: During my 1-week free trial training at a well-known MMA-focused gym in San Diego, I was unkindly kneed in the nose while turtled by an MMA guy. Needless to say, I do not train there.

Still more controversy: When you are turtled, you often cannot see your opponent and you cannot use your hands in any meaningful way. Again, reasonable points.

And perhaps above all else there’s the fact that the turtle just looks kind of silly. In the pithy words of Theo Von describing the turtle: “One of them sometimes will be on the other one’s kinda rear. Like one of them tryna protect a little raspberry and the other one tryna get that berry.” This is to say, I don’t recommend having a partner watch you train while you are practicing turtle. Unless, of course, you are trying to get him or her to leave you for a pressure passer.

Bernardo Faria Shows The Worst Position To Get Stuck In | WATCH BJJ
It is a huge honor for me to steal your girl.

Maybe because of my ignorance of the controversy surrounding the turtle position, I decided to learn it immediately after those six months in half guard. In retrospect, I don’t really remember why I chose to focus on the turtle except that A) I hated getting my guard passed and B) I was paying attention to r/BJJ when Lachlan Giles wrote in an AMA:

“What Priit Mikhelson (spelling?) has been showing is really interesting, and funnily enough. At our gym the hardest person to take the back of from turtle is an Olympic wrestler.”

And so, with Giles’s blessing, I bought Priit’s instructional “Protecting & Generating Dynamic Offense From The Turtle.”


Spring Camp 2019: Panda with Priit Mihkelson - YouTube
Everyone Else is Wrong

Giles’s Half Guard Anthology is organized like a decision tree: “If your opponent does this, then you do that.” Priit’s Turtle, on the other hand, is a set of principles.

The principles basically declare that Everyone Else is Wrong about the turtle. According to Priit there are fundamental problems with how the turtle is taught, even by masters. He begins his instructional by demonstrating what a proper turtle posture should look like. And, indeed, it is profoundly different from anything I’d seen taught in an in-person class.

The new turtle posture changed my game instantly. This is not to say that I was immediately good from the turtle. But I recall that within weeks I went from having my turtle easily broken down to being at least stubborn.

Despite my newfound stubbornness, those first six months of turtling were, honestly, painful. One of the downsides to playing turtle is that it is easy for your opponent to get a collar grip near your neck. This means that technical opponents are able to attack clock chokes, bow-and-arrow chokes, something called an “old man choke,” and many more. Priit’s instructs mostly sans gi.

The pain of learning turtle goes far beyond collar chokes. Pain also comes when sparring partners have the unfortunate idea that it is good technique to throw a rear naked choke grip over your face. More pain comes with incidental eye, ear, nose, and mouth pokes while opponents hunt for front headlocks. More pain comes from being kneed in the nose by MMA guys. And finally, a turtler’s face is often buried in the mat.

Through all of this, if you’re adhering to Priit’s principles, you should be able counter these nasty attacks. But in practice, while you’re learning to play turtle, you will be choked. A lot. I would guess that there are only a few BJJ players who were choked more than I was during those first six months when I was learning turtle.

More embarrassing is that I sometimes choked myself while learning turtle. In order to counter the bow-and-arrow collar grip as seen in the video above, the turtle player needs to turn into his opponent. It takes time, however, to learn which way to turn. Turning the wrong way makes for a tight and fast choke. I’ve done it a half-dozen times at least.

But I also progressed. One thing Priit talks about in his instructional is that one of the goals turtlers have to look forward to is being known at his gym as annoying. After six months of practicing turtle, I had moved from being stubborn to being annoying.

The downside of being annoying is that it means a lot of stalled rounds. Whereas the latter half of 2019 was characterized by me being choked a lot from turtle, nobody stalled more rounds than I did in 2020.

This, by the way, is why I don’t necessarily suggest that new white belts focus on the turtle. While you are stalling rounds in turtle, you get really good at turtling, but the rest of your jiujitsu does not necessarily progress. I have joked with my training partners that all this time I have been developing a surprise berimbolo from turtle. (I am not.)

Priit’s instructional falls short, I think, when it comes to “Generating Dynamic Offense.” To be fair, I think it’s fine: His principled turtle posture is valuable enough. But the turtle student must look elsewhere for offense.


Telles being Telles

At some point during my turtle learning I started to be more active from the position. Priit’s turtle posture is so sturdy that against many training partners I can spend a full five-minute round in the turtle. But the novelty of being an immovable object wears off. The stubbornness gets old, and your face gets tired of being buried in the mat.

To Make Turtle Fun Again, I looked to Eduardo Telles.

Over on The Fight Site, they published a long and just marvelous article about Eduardo Telles and his style. I’m not going to go deep there, except as it relates to my own development as a turtler. But read the article if you want to turtle.

Since I discovered him, I’ve loved watching Telles’s rounds. Contrary to the style I developed playing Priit’s defensive style, Telles isn’t stubborn at all.* Watching opponents try to pass Telles’s guard is like watching someone wrestle a waterbed. Telles transitions from half guard, to turtle, to seated, to sprawled face down, and all the way back in an unorthodox but effective flow.

And just as important to me, Telles’s game looks fun. Even in his high-level competitive rounds he looks like he’s enjoying himself. And so I’ve tried to cultivate that same fluid stubbornness. (An oxymoron?)

I suppose now I can prescribe learning turtle with appropriate qualification: If you watch Eduardo Telles’s rounds and say “this guy is awesome,” take some time to turtle. If not, that’s cool––you do you. But I’m also going to assume that your game looks like this.

Priit does, by the way, credit Telles in his instructional. Priit introduces a guard recovery technique in which the turtle player sits back or “folds” over one of his legs in order to square up to his opponent. Telles does it all the time. Priit calls the movement “The Telles.”

I’ve found “The Telles” to be so fundamental to the turtle position that I incorporate it into my warm up before class. It’s a movement I’ve never seen taught, but for turtlers, I think it is as critical as the hip escape. There are a lot of ways to recover guard and attack from turtle, but I’ve found that the most effective for me––by far––has been Telles-ing.

The Future

My plan was to leave the turtle behind in early 2020 in favor of practicing the closed guard. But a global pandemic threw off my plan. I remain shelled and my learning is less focused than it was when I was a white belt with a grand vision.

One nice thing about having a good turtle is that it takes away some of the risk of experimenting with new moves. I want to go for that triangle? Maybe they stack me and I have to turtle. I want to shoot a single leg? Go ahead, sprawl on me––see what happens! Make my day.

Now three years into jiujitsu I’m having fun developing this stubborn fluidity and I feel safe to experiment with new stuff. Worst comes to worst, find me turtled. To me it’s a pretty good place to be.

*I don’t mean to represent Priit’s style as stubborn. This is simply the style I personally developed as a white/blue belt while implementing Priit’s material. YMMV. Interesting, while writing this I learned that Priit has uploaded a bunch of narrated rolling videos on his YouTube channel. Not stubborn at all.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: