Personal Combat: Breaking the OODA Loop

Guns and Gear | Contributor

By Ernest Emerson, Emerson Knives 

Hopefully, if you are involved in Law Enforcement, Military service or training in personal protection, whether as a profession or just for the safety of yourself and your family, you’ve heard of the OOODA Loop. If you have not, I suggest that you Google the acronym OODA, Lt Col Robert Boyd (the originator) or an article I wrote titled, “Extreme Violence,” Parts I and II. In the interim I will give you a very brief description of who and what it is. If you are familiar with the OODA loop them proceed with the rest of this article.

Please bear in mind that the OODA loop does not exist alone or in an isolated state. It is interwoven within the fabric of Fight or Flight, Situational Awareness, personal conditions of awareness, previous experience (or lack thereof) and of course, your own unique personality traits.

The OODA loops is the name given to the sequence of events that your human computer goes through as it processes the constant stream of data and stimulus that bombards your brain in your every waking and probably, non-waking moment.

It is probably not noticeable to us for most of the mundane and non-threatening events that we experience all of the time. It becomes very evident and very important when we are confronted with a high stress, dangerous or life threatening event. Knowing that the OODA loop exists and that we are all in effect, slaves to it, gives us the opportunity to analyze it, address it and with proper training use it to our advantage.

The letters OODA make up the acronym for the terms (in their sequential order) that describe the sequence;  Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

Below is a brief description of the process.

Observe  Orient  Decide  Act 

Observe  The initial stimulus triggers a response.

For example, you are in a dark room and a TV set goes on unexpectedly.  It gets your attention and you look in its’ direction – whats that?

Orient  Identification of Stimulus

Oh, that’s the T.V. and that’s the Seinfield show.

Decide  Decision to Act / Choice of Action

I’ve seen that episode – I’m going to change channels.

Action  The physical act of carrying out the decision. You reach out and change the channel to another show.

This is a fixed sequence of events and if this sequence is started or engaged, it follows through from start to finish.

It can be speeded up slightly through training, most notably scenario-straining, but can not be speeded up past a certain point due to the fixed time of human cognitive analysis and the action / reaction sequence.

The only way that the OODA loop’s process can be speeded up is by removing steps from the process. Since I just stated that once the OODA loop process is started, it must always follows through fun start to finish, then how is this possible?

The answer is this; By having a pre-planned course of action. In other words, having a plan before the OODA process begins eliminates or removes two of the steps from the four step OODA sequence.  And these steps can only be removed through training. Specifically, training designed purposefully to remove those steps.

The two steps that can be removed through this training are, Orient and – Decide, leaving only Observe and act. This effectively cuts the fixed time sequence of the OODA loop in half. Through training, both physical and mental, these steps are addressed again and again at ever increasing speed so that when engaged in combat, there will be complete and immediate action without thought.  The phoenomena referred to by trained and experienced operators as “The Calm of Combat.” 

Here is an example as explained to me by my friend, former Navy SEAL, Larry Yatch owner and director of SEALED Mindset, a state of the art firearms and combat training school in Minneaopolis, Minnesota.

Next, when something seems ‘out of place’

You enter into a coffee shop and sit down to relax. A sketchy., tattooed male in a hoody enters the shop. Your trained level of situational awareness alerts you. Noting that he seems “out of place” and is exhibiting a number of nervous and subliminally noticeable suspicious actions. You thought process should be;

“There is something odd here, that guy looks bad. If he pulls out a gun to rob this place, I’m taking cover, drawing my weapon and I’m going to shoot him.

By having this “plan” already in place you have already addressed Orient and you have already addressed Decide.

So, if the thug does pull out a gun and screams, “This is a robbery! Everybody into the cooler” You will still need to Observe his actions. But you have already Oriented; (ID’d him as a threat). You have also already made your Decision about what you are going to do; (cover and shoot). You only have to Act; (aim and press the trigger).

This type of training, designed to facilitate the process of complete action without thought, is the same training undertaken by Tier One operators in pre-mission training in preparation for an assault against a specific objective. The most relevant and obvious example of this is the recently released “declassified” information about the training undertaken by the SEAL operators leading up to Operation Geronimo and the successful takedown of Osama Bin Laden.

Those operators spent months training in a complete and accurate (as accurate as intell provided) mock up of the compound housing the terrorist. Through hundreds-thousands of repetitive drills under simulated combat conditions, pursuing every “what if?,” scenario that could be imagined, the operators were being forged into a machine where all extraneous decision making processes were removed, leaving only immediate responses to action dictated in actual combat to be addressed. And even those decisions pre-rehearsed as accurately as possible to limit the decision making process where immediate response / action is required.  The result is the creation of a system of interacting gears as finely tuned as a precision Swiss chronograph.  A deadly timepiece that when wound up and set in emotion will not stop ticking until the objective is achieved.

By doing so, this training, or rehearsal process, Is designed to eliminate any moments of indecision, hesitation or questions in the most critical instant, where the time between Decision and Action can spell the difference between life and death. By having a thoroughly practiced plan developed where; if A then B, if C then D, etc., is already thought out rehearsed and decided upon prior to the engagement, then the OODA loop process can be broken and as a result, effectively shortened. Bear in mind that the faster I can go to from Decision to Action, the more I cause the enemy to engage his own OODA loop again and again, placing him at beat the mercy of his OODA loop continuously in a reactionary mode, and thereby not an effective combatant.

Also bear in mind that these operators have layers of contingency and backup plans in place, also well practiced, just in case something goes wrong, which as we all know, in combat, is unavoidable.

In the same regard, agents of the Secret Service, specifically on the Presidential details are trained specifically to “act without thinking,” or so it would appear when they are called into action. In reality, they are thinking. But, they are thinking about what they are going to do before they have to act.

“That one looks suspicious. Where am I going to move, intercept or shield if he steps forward? ” This minute to minute planning,the act of always thinking ahead, is of course, on top of the all the other contingencies already in place if a threat is presented against their principal.  These agents have to stay a step ahead of the game, in fact several steps if possible. They can not possibly react before a bad guy acts, – physically.  This is where their training about recognizing a threat before it manifests comes into play, the ability to pick out the bad guy before he acts. However, a lot of bad guys are very good at masking their intent until they act. As a result, in this case, the agents have to Observe and Decide before the potential assassin can act.

That is truly the only advantage they have in the moment of micro-seconds that exist   being the difference between a zealous fan and a deadly assassin.  This high level of readiness, this unceasing vigilance is the result of years of collective experience, historical analysis and state-of- the-art training designed to give the small but critical advantage in keeping their President safe from harm.

As you may surmise, not everyone is cut out to be a Navy SEAL, Delta Operator, Secret Service Agent or SWAT team member. These types of individuals and those in similar job descriptions are indeed the cream of the crop and it still takes them years of training to make the starting line up. However, the same principles and an understanding of them can allow you to facilitate and “upgrade” your training and raise your capabilities to new levels of readiness and ability. But bear in mind this, bad guys train too. Taking the extra effort in learning how to break the OODA loop may give you the advantage you may need to survive a deadly attack.

Lets take a look at an example of how and why the OODA loop can be detrimental to the performance of a skill set.

Were going to choose a Major league power hitter-a home run slugger. In this case you can fill in any name because they’re all been through this experience, the slump. I know this because I played pro ball. If you look at the hitter, barring an illness or injury the hitter is the same on any given day as he was on any other day. The swing is just as good as it always was. It is the same swing as six minutes ago, six days ago, six months ago or six years ago. He has swung that bat thousands of times and connected solidly with hundreds of hits and home runs. He’s still in the prime of his career and facing the same caliber of pitchers that he has always, successfully faced. Yet, for some reason, he can not put the bat and the ball in the same place at the same time. this, in spite of the fact that in batting practice, he consistently drives balls over the fence again and again. He knows he can do it yet, in the halters box, in the game, in front of 55,000 fans he can’t get a hit.  As you may surmise, this is not a physical thing, it’s a mental thing.

Now, if we apply the principles of the OODA loop to the batting sequence as a result of a lifetime of experience at hitting a ball that which once only involved; Observe – Act has become Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. In effect, this batter has allowed his brain to get in the way. This has slowed down his ability to swing at a 96 m.p.h. fastball just enough to no longer get “good wood” on the ball. His flash picture of the ball leaving the pitchers hand, the point where he begins his swing, has slowed just enough to place him just a quarter beat “behind” the pitch. Result-the Slump. Of course we all know that once you’re in a slump, the more you think about it, the deeper the hole becomes. Thats’ one of the wonders of the human psyche. But it’s also the key to allowing us to exell at a chosen endeavor.

How would one break out of the slump?  What type of training could be used to get that batter back on his game on his game?

Again, discussing this with my friend Larry Yatch, our training solution might not be what is currently prescribed by a Major League batting coach but Larry has proven it works for combat shooters and the principles for performing any complex skill set under pressure are essentially the same.

Next, overload the brain in training

Our solution would be to subject the batter to as much stress and outside interference as possible, to overload the “thinking” brain as much as possible so it can not do it’s “job.” This stimulus  would include auditory physical and mental stress.  For example, auditory stress could include loud noise, blaring music, shouting, screaming and other auditory stimulus.  The key world be to get the hitter to bat under these induced conditions without being able to process all this stimulus streaming in all at once so that his brain effectively throws up its hands in frustration and simply quits. Training could include rapid fire pitches delivered by a machine or maybe pitching delivered by two pitchers in rapid succession allowing the batter only enough time to reset before he would need to swing again all the while accompanied by a bombardment of other auditory, visual and mental stress.

This would then force the batter back into the shortened sequence of Observe – Act, the zone that and mode that got him into the Majors in the first place. A mode where pure physical skills have been honed to the point of perfection, where they are not impeded by a slower decision making process during every pitch.  A place where the batters confidence is then restored to his pre-slump level of performance.

How does this apply to combat? Well, just like any other highly technical skill performed under stress, the principles and their resultant effects on human performance are exactly the same. A shooter also knows when he’s not on his game, when something  just isn’t right. Sometimes just taking a day or two off from training is all it takes. Sometimes adding something completely different to shock the system is what is needed.  And sometimes a ‘it’s the performance of those skills under the stress overload process is what is needed to do the job, a complete reset, you could say. sometimes it’s all of the above.

I must state though, that for the beginning or novice trainee, this overload system will not work. Why? Because if a beginning ball player has an incorrect stance, improper grip, sloppy swing or is afraid of the ball, it is not going to matter how slow or fast the OODA loop process is until he has mastered the basics and has a consistent foundation of correct skill sets that supports correct, repeatable physical skills.  As with a shooter who has a terrible grip or trigger press, it is not until those physical disparities are correct that the mental processes can be specifically addressed with measurable results. As you can deduce it is impossible to address a trainees “problems” without the process of elimination.  At the start of the process it mus be determined. The question, “Is this physical or mental?” has to have been identified before either aspect can be addressed with tangible results. Physical problems have to be addressed first – always. And, in regard to those Tier One Operators it is after the perfection of the highest levels of physical skills that they often then find out that the next phase is sometimes the harder, steeper path to climb. The path they are now facing, the training of the mind.

Editor’s note: Thanks to my good friend Ernest Emerson for this contribution. Ernest is a personal combat instructor and an expert knife-maker. View his knives here http://emersonknives.com/.

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