An opponent tucked into a ball and resting on his knees and elbows is, perhaps, the most difficult Ground Play situation that there is to deal with. I call this the Turtle and any white belt can hold forth on the futility of attacking the Turtle.

I know how many Turn Overs and attacks, to defeat the Turtle position, are shown at clinics and demonstrations but I also know that when tried in competition these neat little tricks, somehow, don’t quite work. What I wanted to know was how elite Judo players, Olympians and World class players, dealt with the Turtle. I wanted to know if they could score against the Turtle.

The Research

The only way to find the answer to this questions was to carefully study elite players in action. The rationale to studying elite players for answers to Coaching questions is that these players are more technically efficient and are the examples that we Coach our players by.

I viewed video tapes of the Barcelona Olympic Judo competition in the Women’s under 52kg, 56kg, 61kg, and 66kg, as well as the Men’s under 65kg, 71kg, 78kg and 86kg using stop action and rewinding to ascertain exactly what actions took place. The heavier weight divisions were not available for study.

The Results

A total of 548 incidents of the Turtle, or conditions similar to the Turtle, were recorded. Incidents where the defender assumed the Turtle, or conditions similar to the Turtle, but the attacker declined to engage in a Ground Play exchange were included in this total. The decision to include these incidents is based on the fact that defender is offering an opportunity to be scored upon but the attacker, for his own reasons, declines the opportunity.

It was very interesting to note that some of the very best Judo players in the world, including Koga, of Japan, Hajtos of Hungary and our own Jason Morris, simply walked away from opponents when they adopted the Turtle position.

Of the 548 incidents only 17 of these exchanges resulted in the defensive player being attacked successfully for a score. These statistics show a 3.1% probability of successfully attacking the Turtle.

Successfully Attacking the Turtle

Any attack that resulted in the offensive player getting into a controlling position that would result in a score i.e. the arm extended for Juji Gatame or the Referee declaring Osae Komi was counted as a successful assault. Situations where a defender might be turned from his, or her, Turtle but the defender entangled one of the attacker’s legs, or otherwise defended, was not counted as a successful assault.

Of the 17 successful assaults on the Turtle;

5 were Sankaku Turn Overs

5 were the wrestling “Half Nelson” maneuver

6 were simply prying an arm out for Juji Gatame

1 was a Shime waza. This particular incident should be viewed with a critical eye. The players were Olympic medalist Dott of Germany and a very inexperienced young man from an African nation. When skill levels are as far apart as these two players we cannot be sure if superior attacking skill or inferior defensive skills allowed the successful attack.

With the exception of the Shime waza, all of the successful attacks against the Turtle had one common factor. In all scoring attacks the attacker drove one of the defender’s elbows towards his ear. That is to say that 94% of the scores against the Turtle came by first finding a way to pry one of the opponent’s elbows toward his ear!

A very important point of mechanics must be kept in mind when attempting to pry an elbow towards the ear. The attacker must keep his, or her, body in position to PUSH against the elbow. When the attacker attempts to pull the elbow he is;

1) Restricting his own Power

2) Limiting his Mobility

3) Putting himself in position to expose his own back to the mat.

It is interesting to note that there were several incidents where the attacker would pry an elbow free and attempt to drive it across the defender’s back. It didn’t work. Even Pierantozzi, World Champion and Olympic Silver Medalist was unable to score against an inexperienced Indonesian player by trying to pry an arm out from behind.

A Discovery

If the Turtle is extremely difficult to deal with there is a similar defensive position that might be even more difficult to attack. This is when the defender lies flat out on his stomach, elbows tucked in and legs slightly apart. I observed no incidents of the attacker breaking the defender out of this posture.

Incidents of the defender adopting this posture were included in the total for this research due to the similarity of the Turtle and the Flat out position.

Worth Investigation

There was one incident where a Spanish female was still on her feet when her opponent dropped into a Turtle. As the defender tucked into position she caught the Spaniard’s Near Leg between her own and trapped it. The Spanish girl made a move that vaguely resembled Uchimata and turned the opponent onto her back. The defender, however, kept the leg firmly locked and nothing came of the opportunity.

This situation was very similar to the Uchimata that Schreiber, of Germany, threw Deydier, of France, with to win the under 66kg World Championship during the 1987 Essen, Germany World Judo Championships. It might be well worth the Coaching time to develop a version of Uchimata to be used against the Turtle.


Defensive Ground Play postures with the defender on or near his stomach, and tucked in strongly, are extremely difficult to assault. Top players know this and get into this position at every possible opportunity. In point of fact many of the very best players, notably twice Olympic Champion Legien, of Poland, finish throwing attacks by driving right into a Turtle position. (Although this may also be a time wasting tactic Legien knows that he is safe by tucking into a Turtle.)

I believe that there are two reasons that the Turtle is so difficult to deal with.

1) The rules of Judo play are geared toward promoting action. This is good for spectator appeal. However it is bad for Ground Play skills that take a little time to work into. As a consequence Referees tend to break Ground Play situations without allowing the attacker to develop his attack.

2) The Turtle, or Flat Out position, is nearly impregnable. It is especially so if the players adopting the Turtle is skilled at fending off assaults.

This research has shown that there are only two methods of dealing with an opponent in a Turtle.

1) Follow the example of Jason Morris and simply walk away and let the Referee make the defender get back to his feet.

2) Get into position to pry one of the defenders elbows toward his ear. As a matter of fact the Performance Goal of anyone who attacks a Turtle should be;

Push the defender’s elbow to his ear.

The attacker may use any skill that he, or she, is comfortable with to push the elbow but he, or she, must PUSH the elbow towards the ear.

Finally, players should never assault a Turtle unless they are ahead on the score board! Remember, defender’s go into the Turtle because it is very difficult to score against. Assaulting a Turtle has a 97% probability of being a waste of time. You must have time to waste, by being ahead, or the cost could be the match.

That Assaulting the Turtle is very difficult there can be no argument. Is Assaulting the Turtle futile? I don’t think so. The key, the Performance Goal, to success against the Turtle has been revealed by this research. With proper Coaching the probability of success against the Turtle can be raised.

This page is provided by the author George Weers and published here by Neil Ohlenkamp, Encino Judo Club, California, USA.
Last modified July 20, 1997