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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

03 March 2013

Book Review - Zen Jiu Jitsu ('Oliver Staark')

Short Review: Oliver Staark (a pseudonym) put together a thirty day system back when he was a purple belt last year, alleging it will greatly improve your jiu jitsu. The advice is mostly sensible, but nothing out of the ordinary: you could probably glean similar tips from searching around various BJJ blogs and websites. Nevertheless, if you want to have a program to follow, then this short guide may be of use to you. Available to buy here in the UK for £3.90, or here in the US for around $6 on your Kindle. There is a hard copy version too, but it's rather more expensive.

Full Review: The ability to self-publish through Kindle has considerably opened up the market. It's a straightforward process, which provides the author with either 35% or 70% royalties (depending on how much you decide to charge), the rest going to Amazon. On the one hand that means that you don't have to conform to the commercially driven expectations of a publisher, but on the other it means that there is absolutely no quality control. There are also options for self-publishing in print, such as CreateSpace.

In the case of self-published Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructionals, there are other sources of credibility. The most obvious is having a black belt: that automatically gains a certain level of respect from prospective readers. As I've discussed in previous reviews, if the person behind the instructional does not have a black belt, then they are automatically going to have to work much harder to convince the reader their material is worth a look.

When it comes to instructional books, there is a precedent for non-black belts producing quality work. Ed Beneville's excellent series on the guard was initially written while he was a purple belt. Much more recently, I was impressed by Mark Johnson's Jiu Jitsu on the Brain (a self-published Kindle release), which remains the only book I would be happy to recommend to an absolute beginner in BJJ. Though he is now a Pedro Sauer black belt, he wore a brown belt at the time.

Oliver Staark has since also become a brown belt, but wrote Zen Jiu Jitsu (as far as I'm aware, this has no connection to Enrico Cocco's Zen Jiu Jitsu club) while a purple. It is purporting to offer guidance to blue belts looking for motivation. Now, technically you could argue that as the rank above, a purple belt has the relevant knowledge to do that, but the tagline of the book - "The 30 Day Program To Improve Your Game 1000%" - is a much bigger claim. If a black belt coach with a long history of producing top students made a similar boast, it would be one thing, but when it is a purple belt who can only put themselves forward as proof, that's quite different.

It is also problematic that Staark - as he admits in the text - is using a pseudonym. Anonymity is detrimental when you're trying to establish your credentials to instruct others. "It worked for me, so it can work for you" is not a bad starting point, but I would feel a lot more confident if I was reading a manual by somebody who can demonstrate that not only did it work for them, but it worked for numerous students too. When Staark insists that his method has been effective for his students, it may well be true, but the reader has no way of confirming that success or indeed his own assertion that he improved as a result (except, of course, by trying the program themselves).

In total Zen Jiu Jitsu contains slightly over 30,000 words. It is almost all text, except for a photo of a grappling dummy, a training log and the Batman slapping Robin meme. Due to the non-narrative nature of the book and its concern with theory, that can sometimes make it a slog to read, but in fairness theory is difficult to effectively illustrate (except perhaps with pie charts and graphs, but that isn't too exciting for the average reader). There are a few typos, like 'here' instead of 'hear', but as with Johnson's work, that isn't uncommon in self-published books. Also, Staark told me this review copy was older, meaning the newer version may have corrected those errors.

The claim Zen Jiu Jitsu makes is that if you can follow the program Staark sets out for thirty days, your jiu jitsu will be enhanced exponentially. At another point in the book, he exclaims that you could be 'world-class' in 'only 4.5 years!' You might ask why the rush, as jiu jitsu is something that you can spend a lifetime enjoying. Then again, there nothing wrong with trying to use your time efficiently, particularly if it is limited.

Staark's central advice is to be focused in your training, which while nothing revolutionary makes perfect sense. He views himself as a 'jiu jitsu scholar', attempting to systematise his progress. To give you a sample of Staark's writing style:

I used to hate side control top. For some reason I could not get good control or an acceptable submission. My game changed to this: use my killer A-Sweep to get them on their back, instead of going for the back or the mount, I would pull back and fall into side control. This forced me to work on a new orientation filter I was drilling. At first it was frustrating as my mount submissions blew everyone away, I got a real handle on the Roger Gracie cross collar choke from the mount, but I didn't go safe, I pushed into territory that exhausted me and made me feel lame.

The idea he is putting forward here is not a bad one: practice weaker positions, don't just rely on areas where you are already competent. However, I found the phrasing a bit off-putting, and even arrogant in places (e.g., "my mount submissions blew everyone away" as opposed to "I felt I had a good understanding of attacking from the mount").

There is a similar example when he is talking about getting a training dummy for drilling purposes at home. Again, it is a perfectly reasonable idea, but he feels he has to include this sentence: "The dummy still paid off though as I started to make ground on guys who I was always level with or slightly worse than. Those guys I blow through now like they aren't even there."

However, this comes down to personal taste: humility is important to me, but fortunately we're all different. Others could see Staark's description of overcoming his training partners as appealingly aspirational, rather than big-headed. Presumably the intention is to encourage readers to emulate his success, rather than crow about how he smashes everyone in training.

Strangely the section on the training dummy has a sales pitch from a particular brand in the middle of it. Staark says he has no connection to the company and that he doesn't get any commission, but whether or not that is true, it seems odd to copy and paste a large chunk of marketing directly from the company website FAQ. Half the points are debatable at best, in which the owner also takes the opportunity to launch an attack on rival companies.

That's immediately followed in the next section by a sales pitch for another company selling logbooks. It is entirely possible that Staark simply feels very strongly about the products that have helped him, but the repeated pushing of products feels a little inappropriate (Update May 2013: I should note here that the owner of that company contacted me and confirmed that he has no business relationship with the author). Not to mention that as somebody who has logged obsessively since the beginning, I'm not convinced you actually need a specialised product for logging: a notepad works fine, as does a dictaphone and/or a laptop.

I also strongly disagree with his proposed format for note-taking, if the example he gives is meant to be a template:

In sparring I took the back on both occasions. Got a nice two collar choke on Big Dave and a RNC on Little Charlie. Big Win. Felt confident.

To simply congratulate yourself on submitting people is not likely to result in improvement: in fact, it may do the opposite, particularly if you have a 'win/lose' attitude to sparring in class. There is nothing in the above commenting on how he went about getting those collar chokes, in regards to grips, set-up and the like, reactions of his training partner or the defences he could need to overcome next time. All of which would be far more useful information. Once again, however, this could be a matter of personal preference. The intention here might be to boost confidence, which may well be of some importance when preparing for competition.

At several points he urges you to ask your instructor, which should always be kept in mind when using supplemental material. Staark also highlights video analysis, both of yourself and well-known competitors, which is undoubtedly beneficial if you have the resources. Another good idea is to warn about injury, although it is risky to give out specific suggestions without a medical background (maybe the author does in fact have one, but it isn't mentioned anywhere). One problem is that he dubiously states you should "at all costs avoid surgery." While it is obviously not something anybody wants to go through, if surgery is required then it would be extremely ill-advised to ignore your doctor.

On a more positive note, Staark suggests asking your partner if they are injured before you roll and if there is anything they are working on. Fostering communication of that sort with your training partners is a plausible route to improvement. I also approved of his recommendation to train at other academies, which is something I regularly do myself, though it would be difficult to follow Staark's minimum of once a month without aggravating the relationship with your instructor. Most gyms don't mind if you train elsewhere while travelling, but to manage once a month or more, you would either have to have a lot of free time or start dropping in to other local clubs.

Zen Jiu Jitsu does not present anything ground-breaking, but it does collate various pieces of mostly sensible advice, though perhaps this doesn't require an entire book. In short, stay focused, train consistently and have a clear goal. However, if you need direction, then you could certainly do worse than this program, as it at least gives you an outline to follow. Available to buy here in the UK, or here in the US.


  1. Hmmm can't say I'm tempted based on your review. Self publishing clearly has its flaws.

  2. It does have some positive feedback on Amazon, and I guess worth keeping in mind that neither of us are blue belts, so technically we're not the intended audience. :)

  3. Interesting review, Slidey.
    There were several red-flags in this - one of the most glaring of which is the accusation of plagiarism and/or product placement.

  4. I definitely don't think Staark plagiarised: the quotes he put in were referenced and acknowledged, he wasn't trying to pass it off as his own work.

    The product placement struck me as odd rather than manipulative. Like I said, entirely possible that he just really likes those products, rather than he has an actual business relationship with the companies that make them.

  5. Thanks for the clarification. That's better, but not much.

  6. Where is the Zen in this whole thing?

  7. I assume the author picked that name for marketing purposes because he thought it sounded good, as opposed to any deep connection to Zen. I could be wrong: I don't know much about Zen or the author's interest (or lack of it) in Buddhist practice.

  8. This is the guy who wrote this book....apparently anyway.

    For what it's worth, I'm quite enjoying the book, it's interesting to read about the concepts of improving in BJJ as opposed to trying to sift through a ton more techniques that I try and fail once in training.