Power Players

Ex-Navy SEAL commander: Here's why so many smart people practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu

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What does Andrew Wilson, the CEO of video game powerhouse Electronic Arts, have in common with singer Demi Lovato or the actor and investor Ashton Kutcher? They all practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a style of martial art considered a form of "physical chess."

Former U.S. Navy SEAL Jocko Willink has practiced the martial art throughout his adult life. The former platoon commander and co-author of "The Dichotomy of Leadership" recently told CNBC Make It why he believes jiu-jitsu is revered by so many smart and successful people: the practice values strategy over brute force.

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, one controls opponents through ground fighting, wrestling them until they are rendered harmless. A careful mental game — one that leverages surprise moves — is key to overpowering an opponent regardless of size or strength. The approach is similar whether on the battlefield or in business, where a direct, head-on approach won't always yield the best results.

"You don't tell your competitor exactly what you're going to do," says Willink. "You set up things in such a way that your competitor doesn't expect you to come at them from a different angle."

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This approach works when dealing with certain types of people, as well, such as a difficult boss. He says with these types of people, you don't attack the ego, since these people will "fight even harder against you." Instead, you take a different tack, building trust and massaging their egos until "they welcome you in and welcome your ideas, because they're on your team now."

Those who do Brazilian jiu-jitsu, says Willink, soon apply the lessons they learn from the practice to a range of aspects in their lives.

It's not just a form of self defense, he says. "You're competing mentally."

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