Air Force Colonel John Boyd developed the concept of the OODA Loop to describe how we interact with an opponent on a battlefield.  Boyd emphasized that the loop is not meant to function as a stand-alone process.  To be properly employed OODA is actually a series of interconnected loops kept in continuous operation.  OODA is an acronym standing for:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

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In the context of self-defense, Observe refers to your awareness of the world around you.  Orient is often taught as turning toward a threat identified in the observe stage, but Boyd meant it to be so much more than that.  He taught that the Orient phase included the prism that consists of our culture, beliefs, values, and mindset.  To Boyd, Orient was the most important phase of the loop.  Observing a potential threat means little if your mindset does not process the information correctly.  Naturally our mindset is constrained within the boundaries set by our culture, beliefs, and values. 

Decide involves not only deciding to act, but developing a plan as well.  This is the phase that we strive to improve when developing immediate action drills, such as the Non-Diagnostic Linear Malfunction Drill.  Through repetition and mental problem solving we are able to “hot wire” pre-planned responses to specific scenarios that all but eliminates the Decide phase of OODA.  The Act phase of OODA is simply us following the course of action chosen in the Decide phase.  When considered as a series of interconnecting loops, at the end of the Act phase we then start the loop over again, Observing to see what our opponent is doing in reaction to our action, and so on.

From the OODA loop comes the saying that action is better than reaction.  In reality, action is faster than reaction because the first three phases of OODA take place before your opponent can move to an Act phase of their own.  Keep in mind that we are constantly Observing, Orienting, and Deciding throughout the day.  You can see why Observe and Orient are such important aspects of a personal defense philosophy.  If we observe a potential threat but do not properly Orient ourselves to the information we have gathered, we Decide to take no action at all, giving the threat the initiative through inaction.  Training to constantly Observe is much easier than teaching the proper mindset that it takes to properly evaluate potential threats, but that mindset is important because it enables us to move to the Decide phase of OODA.  Without a proper defensive mindset we will find ourselves indecisive when the time to act comes.

Understanding that the OODA loop applies to both parties in a conflict enables us to understand how we can take back the initiative if we do not have it from the beginning.  In the context of self-defense, we typically give up the initiative if we fail to avoid the conflict in the first place.  The threat has chosen the location, time, and nature of the conflict leaving it up to us to interrupt their OODA loop and either extract ourselves or end the fight.

Boyd called this “getting inside the loop.”  He emphasized that defeating your enemies requires us to force them to start their loop over again to react to our own course of action.  We do this by acting in an unsuspected manner.  Boyd stressed agility in his theories of air-to-air combat and stressed the need to inject chaos into your enemy’s plans.  He taught that it is vital to change speed and direction faster than your opponent, and thereby interrupt their OODA and force them to react to you. 

On getting inside your opponent’s OODA loop, Harry Hillaker wrote, “The key is to obscure your intentions and make them unpredictable to your opponent while you simultaneously clarify his intentions. That is, operate at a faster tempo to generate rapidly changing conditions that inhibit your opponent from adapting or reacting to those changes and that suppress or destroy his awareness. Thus, a hodgepodge of confusion and disorder occur to cause him to over- or under-react to conditions or activities that appear to be uncertain, ambiguous, or incomprehensible.”

A lot of wisdom in regard to seizing the initiative in a fight can be found in that paragraph.  Go back and read it again.  The keys Hillaker identified to getting inside the loop lie in speed and unpredictability.

If a thug has chosen you as a target, they have already decided that you can be easily cowed to give into their demands, or that you aren’t a threat.  Again, action is faster than reaction.

By reacting to a threat with a pre-planned, sudden, explosive attack we can seize the initiative and get inside their OODA loop.  That is why so many instructors teach lateral movement as part of the firearms presentation process.  By changing location in a dynamic manner we force the threat to track us and predict where our movement will take us to.  Similarly, several modern combative martial arts systems teach preplanned responses to specific stimuli, and you can even develop your own planned responses.  The key is to practice them until they become nearly automatic.

You can speed up the OODA loop with practice and mental focus, but you must always strive to react in a manner that forces the threat to re-evaluate his course of action.  You must find a way to gain the advantage.  Speed alone is not enough to gain the advantage.  In fact, simply speeding through the OODA loop results in pointless flailing, and actually increases your opponent’s advantage.  Flailing overloads your brain and prevents you from deciding on a course of action.  Flailing is worse than reaction.  To truly get inside your enemy’s OODA loop you must be agile enough, both physically and mentally, to force him to rethink his strategy.

By quickly observing, evaluating, and planning responses to your environment you can increase your awareness of your surroundings while pre-loading your system with the responses necessary to deal with potential threats you have identified.  By training to respond to specific attacks with an automatic response, you can hone your responses to deal with threats that have gotten inside your loop and take back the initiative that will enable you to successfully end the fight.