This is the second Priit Mihkelson seminar I’ve attended, the first being on back defence up at Chris Paines’ gym in Stafford. This latest one was on guard playing at Blue Dog Jiujitsu in Yeovil a really nice gym in deepest darkest Somerset. Like last time, this was a massive 8-hour seminar split over 2 days. Priit explained that this is how he likes to present his work, so that there’s plenty of time to drill and practice to really let the lessons sink in. It’s a very different approach to pretty much every other BJJ seminar teacher out there, most of whom like to get their message across in a single 2 or 3 hour block. I only attended the first day this time because I have other commitments in my life, and frankly, 2 days feels like too much! But, that made me the exception here – pretty much everybody else in the room was going to go back for day 2. So, I guess most people are more obsessed with Jiujitsu than me, or they probably just lived a lot closer!
Priit has all sorts of heretical views on the problems with the way BJJ is generally taught, and can talk about any of these aspects at length. In fact, I interviewed him on my podcast last year and you can get a flavour of his views on BJJ there:
Interestingly, the Sideways Open Guard seminar started in exactly the same way as last time – an initial intro by Priit to his approach to BJJ, then a demonstration of a particular posture, an explanation of key details and then he asked you to practice it solo for a little 2 minute burst, then you regroup and he goes further into the details, and we repeat.
The details are deceptively simple:
Sideways open guard is like an extension of Priit’s “Grilled Chicken” guard – the original Grilled Chicken was a supine guard – lying on your back in a position that resembles a rotisserie chicken. Sideways Open Guard is (surprise, surprise) lying on your side. The important details are:
1) Up on your elbow – not flat on your shoulder, or propped up on your hand.
2) The top leg is key – the angle (45 degrees) has to be just right and the toes must point upwards, so there’s a slight twisting in the calf/shin. We did a lot of experimenting with this angle and why it’s important.
3) The bottom leg is your jab in boxing – so you can move it where you need to.
4) Constant forward pressure – you should be always moving forward in this guard, pressuring the passer.
5) Keep the opponent in the right segment.
Sideways Open Guard. Photo: Roger Karel – Blue Dog Jiu-Jjitsu (c) 2023
But ‘simple to explain’ doesn’t necessarily mean easy. As the seminar progressed it gradually became a 2-person drilling position with an attacker and a defender, building up through various repetitious drills of “adaptive resistance” to get closer and closer to what most people would call “specific sparring”. It became very apparent along the way that there were plenty of mistakes you can make while trying to hold even a simple set of postural principles when under pressure, and Priit’s repetitious drills were designed to expose them.
We’d do something, get feedback from our partner, then do it again, in short 2 minute bursts, with new aspects being added in occasionally by Priit – defence to a leg drag, defence to a toreando, defence to an over/under pass, etc… Priit’s approach to teaching is very different to most BJJ coaches. He does walk around offering advice, but really he wants you to be given the information, then work it out in practice on the mat with as little help from him as possible. The aim is that your drilling partner gives you feedback on where things are going wrong, so you can correct them. You drill, have a chat about it (get feedback), then drill again. I was luckily enough to get paired up with a good partner (shout out to Mark!) who was skillful, thoughtful and intelligent.
Maybe it was just me, but I found the teaching method a little confusing and difficult at times – sometimes we were allowed to talk, sometimes not, and sometimes we could pass guard, sometimes not. I found it frustrating not quite knowing what the rules were at all times. Also the expectation to give feedback on positions that I wasn’t completely familiar with myself was pretty difficult. How do I give good feedback on what my partner is doing “wrong” on something I’ve only just started learning myself, especially while engaging in a ‘live’ type of practice? I find that when doing Jiujitsu my brain is either in “flowing” mode when sparring, which doesn’t involve much thought, or in “thinking” mode which is usually when I’m sitting back and analysing a situation. Having to do both at once I found hard. Sure, I can figure it out over time, but short 2 minute bursts don’t give me enough time to get my brain into that sort of gear. I felt like we’d often just be getting into something interesting and then get called back.
Priit is all about going into microscopic detail on the fine points that make something work. And most importantly, why those details matter. Because they do – the exact angle of a foot can make the difference between a leg that feels impossible to move, like trying to push on a massive tree trunk, to something that would get knocked over by a light breeze. In a way, this reminded me of the focus on posture you find in martial arts like Tai Chi, rather than Jiujitsu, and I suppose that means it’s also open to the same criticisms that Tai Chi gets – that under pressure these small details are too fiddly to be practical. But then, Priit could demonstrate exactly what he was teaching under pressure, so theoretically it should be possible for others to do it too!
Sideways Open Guard is an interesting position because it looks like a very open position where a pass should be pretty easy to do, but it’s not. Priit asked the room to suggest passes to defend against and demonstrated how he could shut down almost any attack. I suggested a simple step over pass, which Priit then demonstrated the defence to effortlessly on me. I really appreciate teachers who take questions from the room like this and let you try things out on them without any ego.
Priit presents himself as a scientist of jiujitsu. His aim is to teach only the optimal posture for each position, which he has worked out through testing, rather than his personal style. His scientific approach can appear a little harsh in teaching style at times, and he sometimes doesn’t seem to have much patience for people who keep getting it wrong or who he perceives as training in the wrong way. He wants you to slow down, really focus on the details and get them right, not blast through the drills without thinking. This hopefully makes you become fully aware of your own blind spots, which is obviously quite difficult, because they are… your blind spots.
With the Sideways Open Guard, a lot of the time the answer to people getting too close was to grab a leg and wrestle up, and Priit constantly used analogies with boxing and wrestling throughout the seminar, comparing the jiujitsu guard to the boxing guard, for instance. This connecting of jiujitsu back to the universal principles of other combat sports, and away from the “if he does this, you counter with this” approach of many other marital arts, is really a great insight and truly valuable to the BJJ community.
After initially gaining popularity for his approach to turtle and other defensive postures, it’s great to see that Priit is still innovating in the world of jiujitsu. I’m a big fan of his work, and it feels like he’s still working on his masterpiece. A Priit seminar is a rare chance to see the master at work, so I’d recommend them to anybody. He has an online site too, Defensive BJJ, so you can follow his work even if you can’t make it to a seminar. His free BJJ Globetrotters videos on YouTube are another great source.
Overall, this was another great seminar. I caught up with some Bristol friends (shout out to Artemis BJJ ) and I’ve learned some fascinating details that are going to change my game for sure. I already played a lot of sideways open guard, but now I know the flaws I had in my posture, I’ve got plenty to work on. So, I’m sad to miss Day 2 and whatever insights Priit was going to share there (I think Z Guard, and even inverting were on the table), but in the spirit of Defensive BJJ, I’m not afraid to have a go at working it out for myself.