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The OODA Loop

Updated: Mar 23

Today's post is another one about minimizing the odds stacked up against the “good guy” when dealing with a predatory attacker.  Let's talk about the OODA Loop and what it means for defense.

I first heard about the OODA Loop when reading Rory Miller's book “Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected.”  The loop is a decision-making model developed by USAF Colonel John Boyd.  This model helps us see how decisions are made and how we can reduce reaction time by looking at the four steps in Boyd's process:

  1. Observe

  2. Orient

  3. Decide

  4. Act

OODA.  These processes go into every choice we make.  In the morning, for instance, we observe that the alarm is ringing and the sunlight is coming in behind the shades.  We orient ourselves to the reality of our bedroom, having left behind that dream of a trapeze artist roasting marshmallows with Hunter S. Thompson in the middle of Buckingham Palace.  (What?  I can't be the only one who has that dream!)  Having oriented yourself to the time of day, the sun, the need to get to work, and your desperate desire for coffee, you decide to get up.  Your resolve summoned, you act: your feet hit the floor, you heave a sad sigh, and you stand and stumble toward the coffee maker.  OODA.

From a self-defense perspective, facing a predator, the OODA Loop points out a very serious disadvantage we face.  A predator hunts, waits, and plans.  They have observed you.  They have oriented themselves: they know the environment, what they want to get, and what they are willing to do in order to get it.  They have also decided to attack.  If they are any good at what they do, they are already acting by the time you know they even exist.

You, on the other hand, are struggling desperately to catch up.  Having already been struck, stabbed, bludgeoned, or shot (a painful observation) you now have to orient yourself to a situation you’ve probably never faced before.  With your head swimming and blood running from your crushed nose into your mouth, you have to decide to defend yourself and how best to do that.  If you are somehow still on your feet, you can finally join the game – already in the fourth quarter – and act.  Not many of us stand a chance given how far behind we are by the time we even observe that an attack has begun.

Apart from 100% perfect awareness, even when you sleep, the only answer I've found to this conundrum is to cut steps out of the Loop.  This is done through unconscious reaction that arises immediately from beneath conscious thought, faster than any decision-making process.  Observation isn't optional, but then I can hopefully skip orientation because my brain has absorbed so deeply a predetermined response to the situation through training.  I can also skip decide because no decision needs to be made.  Like a machine, my subconscious mind stamps out a response to the situation without thought.  In Japanese we might call this mushin no shin.  In Chinese, we could call it wu-wei.  In America, we might call it the only way to save our butts when all of the odds are stacked against us.

When traditional teaching methods are used properly in the martial arts, they condition the mind to respond under pressure.  Kata practice is particularly effective in this regard, but it has to be taught with this specific end in mind.  I've seen tremendous improvement in students’ ability to jump steps in the Loop by putting in the time using traditional methods.  The masters who created these methods were fighting the same bad odds that we are, regardless of different terminology. If we put in the work using the methods they've given us, we can find many of the same real-world results and solutions that they did.


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