Self-Defense Training: Does Anyone Ever Really Have Time for the OODA Loop?

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A TTAG Reader writes:

Innumerable articles have been written about the defensive use of firearms, especially handguns. Due to the high number of current and former combat veterans, much of the self-defense literary efforts seem to be influenced by small unit tactics. One of the significant theories of defensive tactics is the famous (infamous?) OODA loop.

Many gun owners who have had some personal defense training are familiar with the concept of the OODA loop. It seems to be almost as pervasive in application as the four rules of firearm safety. But is the underlying concept flawed when it comes to developing personal, practical abilities regarding the defensive use of guns?

The OODA concept apparently begins with the assumption that there are infinite threat scenarios which can confront an individual. But is that presumption proven or just assumed? If not, are we making a mistake relying on it?

Let’s Be Realistic

It isn’t really practical for an individual — the average gun owner — to train for and respond to an infinite universe of self-defense scenarios. In fact most self defense situations are encountered by people with no training at all. And there’s a fair amount of validity in the old 3-3-3 rule of thumb – most defensive gun uses take place within 3 yards, result in 3 shots fired, and last 3 seconds. In those situations, how much tactical training does the average person really need?

That raises another question: is the OODA loop even helpful? OODA (as promoted these days) appears to be based on the idea that preparation or pre-planning isn’t particularly useful, reasonable, or practical. That’s because of the almost infinite universe of possible threats. Any armed response will, by definition, be ad hoc requiring a heightened ability to observe, orient, decide and act. But what evidence — if any — do we have that pre-planning is pointless?

OK, that’s a lot of questions.

With the table set, let’s look at some “conventional wisdom.” We question the assumptions that OODA is the most effective means of responding to a threat, and that one should endeavor to be relatively skilled in the use of a firearm in “combat” situations.

A useful guide in the analysis is a long out-of-print pamphlet called Aerial Attack Study written in the 1960s. This guide is the seminal work of Air Force officer and fighter pilot John Boyd. Boyd, a Captain at the time, “wrote the book” on fighter tactics, unofficially and in his spare time. While it’s rooted in the capabilities of 1960 weapons and forces, the basics remain essentially unchanged.

Oh, and by the way, Boyd also invented the concept of the OODA loop.

In Boyd’s Aerial Attack Study, he analyzes air combat problems for fighters against bombers and fighters against other fighters. While the bulk of the pamphlet is narrative, there are mathematical supports for Boyd’s principles. He demonstrates how understanding the environment, analyzing the threat types, and learning successful tactics ahead of time are precursors to a successful OODA loop outcome.

Rather than accept the “infinite scenarios” theory of defense, Boyd shows the OODA loop isn’t actually an ad hoc tool, but the facilitator for employing decisions (or variations of decisions) that have already been established or planned. Boyd’s underlying conclusion is that the sphere of possible maneuvers or attacks can be defined, eliminating “infinite” possible scenarios.

Narrowing it Down

For the People of the Gun who contemplate defensive uses of firearms, the sphere of threats can also be defined, eliminating “infinite” possibilities that aren’t likely to confront the average person.

Given an individual’s habits, routines, and environment, a finite number of likely defensive situations can be identified. What that means is that the defender can reduce the number of possible threats to some very predictable avenues, and train for them. Given those limits, general principles of response can be imagined, analyzed, evaluated and addressed. That makes training and preparation much easier.

One might call this pre-planning. With pre-planning established (and always adjusted to account for weapons and mechanisms), one has an array of responses from which to choose. That’s where the OODA loop comes in.

Infinite Doesn’t Apply

Does this mean we really do need formal training in military type tactics? Not at all. How many defensive gun uses require much, if any pre-planning/OODA?” Research a decent number of self-defense shootings and ask yourself what were the limits of the situation (for both attacker and defender). What were the possible responses? Infinite doesn’t really apply.

Next, ask how much training the defender in these cases actually needed, how much and what type training did they have, if any, and did the training have any bearing on the outcome?

What we’re left with seems to be an uncomfortable lack of the definite. Pre-planning is very good for taking advantage of the principles of the OODA loop. Yet, if the vast majority of self-defense gun uses are near-instantaneous, happen at “contact range” and last only a few seconds, is there any support for the notion that planning, training, or OODA looping should take up much of our available time and attention?

On the one hand, I propose that preparation — pre-planning, thinking through scenarios and strategies — gives the defender a significant advantage. And training is never wasted. On the other hand, I can’t decisively assert that planning or training are significant factors in successfully defending oneself with a firearm for most people.

Planning and training vs. an ad hoc response. Is this just another version of caliber wars?

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  1. Change your smoke alarm batteries. Don’t eat dessert everyday. Get your heart rate above 120 bpm for 20 minutes three times a week. Minimum. Arm yourself. Know how to use your weapon. Keep it in working order. Tell your family you love them.

    • Golly I do all that(gotta check those batteries).Recently I was accosted by a lowlife punk harassing folks at a gas station. Simply telling him I’m armed made him run away in terror. He shouted “yer old”! As if that would dissuade me😀 This local station had a murder right after it opened & armed robbery but has good gas at low prices.

    • Mind set will go a long way to balance lack of physical attributes. Simply being pre-prepared to act, along with situational awareness and a NO BS attitude toward criminals. Especially if you are an old out of shape person. I’ve been there and exactly like former water walker said. Project the I’m not going to take any shit and will shoot you, if necessary.

      • Hey I’m old(69)but in fair shape. I just reverse curled with a thumbless grip 122×12 fairly strict. Back in the day I threw guys over bar’s. I’ve seen folk’s who couldn’t backup their menace. It’s not pretty😕

  2. Doesn’t all this happen automatically?
    Experience and training come into play with respect of what you are observing, what decisions you may be making and what assessment you’re running but everything from wiping your ass to ordering from the McD’s drive through involves these steps. You just don’t think about because all the McD’s your fat ass eats has you wiping your bunghole ten times a day ergo lots of experience and training.

    • Exactly, just driving around PRoNJ, you need to practice “defensive driving”, this is actually living in the OODA loop. The bungholes in this state will kill you out of shear negligence if you aren’t constantly aware of what’s swirling around you.

  3. Straw man, much? I’ve never heard a trainer say “no planning” is how to do OODA. What they and I teach is prior planning and proper training and visualization may help you disrupt the bad guy’s loop depending on the situation.

    Could be as simple as “stepping off the X” while drawing. Could be nothing more than violent, explosive counterattack to a surprise physical assault.

  4. Is someone supposed to memorize that algebra equation? Was that a pentagram in the center of it? I made me dizzy looking at it.

    • It’s presented as a circular flow chart, but in reality you need to be processing all 4 steps at the same time and feeding back the results into your thought process. This simultaneous interaction is represented in that quirky pentagram, but that too in reality has way more connections. This would make for an even more convoluted diagram.

  5. There is nothing that gives you the edge in any potential threat situation more than simply paying attention, being aware of your surroundings and not getting caught flat footed.

    • Correct – that would be the Observe and Orient phases of the OODA loop. Which can take place in milliseconds. You walk outside the store carrying a couple bags of groceries. You scan the parking lot (Observe). You see a guy who apparently moves into action as you appear, standing up from a retaining wall and his cigarette (Orient), but you continue to scan to look for potential accomplices. Seeing another suspicious dude (Orient again), you zip through a couple of pre-thought plans (Decide), slap your pocket for your “lost” cell phone, keys, whatever, and walk back into the store (Act.) Pretty easy peasy. It’s just a system to organize your thoughts, nothing more.

  6. John Correia has a saying I love: “Awareness buys you time, and time buys you options.” If you are fully aware of your environment, you have time to model threats mentally, and preferably avoid them completely. Use the OODA loop if you like. If you have less time, you can model the appropriate response in a more simplified version of the OODA loop. If you have no time (because you were possibly oblivious) then the concept of the OODA loop isn’t doing you a lick of good.

  7. Would this be a situation of putting the horse before the cart?
    I mean, the main point of training and using a tool like the OODA loop is to consider a situation may happen, recognize it and train for it over and over until it becomes second nature.
    Dont we unconsciously go through the OODA loop on a various conditions daily? Take driving on the highway. You come up on a pickup truck pulling a RV. You go to pull around the truck: Observe your situation, pulling up on a slower moving vehicle. Orientate yourself to the situation, the truck in front of you, possible vehicles around you. Decide on a course of action, to go around the pickup truck after during your orientation verifying the passing lane was clear. Act.

  8. The Huge Case Before the Third Circuit Today.

    Washington Gun Law President, William Kirk, discusses the huge implications today in the Third Circuit in the matter of Koons v. Platkin, a challenge to all of New Jersey’s new sensitive places passed out of spite of the Bruen opinion. Today, the Third Circuit will hear arguments as to whether or not injunctions should issue on a law which has essentially turned an entire state into a gun free zone.

  9. “OODA (as promoted these days) appears to be based on the idea that preparation or pre-planning isn’t particularly useful, reasonable, or practical.”

    This is absolutely NOT what either Boyd or his Acolytes (i.e., those who actually understood the concept) taught or ever proposed. If you look at the chart, it talks about “implicit guidance and control” in both the Observe and Decide functions. Meaning that to improve your OODA loop, you want the ability to understand what’s going on and decide on effective action to take place automatically on an implicit basis.

    That means training until you have “Fingerspitzengefühl” or “fingertip feeling” for probable situations and a reflexive ability to take decisive and effective action. That requires a BOAT LOAD of preparation and pre-planning for commonly encountered self-defense situations so that you can recognize them early and get ahead of the curve.

    That way, when a criminal expects you to do what a normal victim does and you do something decidedly different that upsets his expectations and plans, you end up “inside his OODA loop” and are able to seize the initiative from the criminal and put him at a decided disadvantage.

    Another commenter already said this article was bashing a ridiculous straw man, and he was absolutely correct in that.

  10. I personally subscribe to the K.I.S.S. principle and I believe that we can distill all preparation and response down to two simple elements which make you an extremely formidable defender:

    1) Practice moving and shooting so that it is natural and automatic for you to move while shooting. That makes you a much more difficult target for your attacker to land significant strikes or bullet wounds on you.

    2) Practice looking all around immediately before, during, and after shooting. That makes you much more likely to notice/see additional attackers that you did not initially notice/see, which of course increases your odds of survival.

    Both elements above are necessary because people naturally tend to freeze and focus intensely on the threat in front of them. Thus, we need to train to overcome those natural tendencies.

    And … that’s it. We don’t need some long-winded scholarly discussion of combat tactics, criminal behavior, human psychology, brain function, nor any other discipline. Just train to move and almost continually scan your surroundings and you will be making the best of your horrible defensive situation.

  11. As a psychology instructor, we discuss sensation, perception, and consciousness. We operate a “slow” brain (analytical), as well as a “fast” brain (going through the motions). Situational awareness must overcome selective attention for the OODA loop to activate. Constant hypervigilance is taxing, and a sign of PTSD. Essentially, read every situation and the transitions between them and apply OODA as needed. However, stay aware enough to notice if the situation changes unexpectedly!

  12. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of concepts here. If you’d like to understand the OODA loop and its application from the individual to battalion level, read a copy of MSG Paul Howe’s book, Leadership and Training for the Fight. Nothing explains it better.

  13. I’m not going to pick this apart bit by bit. I’ll just sum it up.

    Look, the more you know in advance and the more you prepare ahead of time the faster you can OODA because you can sort information more quickly without actively thinking about it. This is because a large part of your brain is, at base, an organic pattern recognition device. That’s the point of OODA; setting yourself up to run through and react to patterns faster than the other guy.

    Further, you will OODA (or fail to) whether you try to or not, because it’s how your brain is built. Everything from traffic in front of you to propaganda trying to change your behavior play on this basic facet of how your brain works.

    Yes, turning it into a doctrine has drawbacks in losing flexibility if this is done wrong. However, done right it provides extremely powerful heuristics that you can leverage to your advantage.

    As much as many don’t want to deal with this real world example which I have personally witnessed many times, it is the case that this kind of leverage can make seemingly “harmless” people very, very dangerous.

    Why does that 16-20 year old girl who’s been in jiu jitsu since she was five destroy the 240lb 30-ish cop when they go toe to toe from the feet?

    Ultimately, OODA is why. He can’t OODA (at all) past a certain point. Meanwhile, her capacity is far greater in this regard, providing many more options that she can leverage and she can do it faster because she doesn’t have to sort out the signal from the noise.

    Outwardly this manifests as her appearing to be wicked fast. She’s not, IRL. She’s just wicked fast compared to him and she’s very hard to catch because she’s smooth about this because she’s been doing this a lot longer than he has. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

    Further, nothing he does surprises her. She knows instinctively what options he has based on how he moves. She can avoid them or take advantage of them before he even completes the initial movement. She can even set him up steps down the road knowing he’ll hand her a submission, choke or the path to another one.

    She has years of experience at this and has practiced it for probably a couple thousand of hours (she’s almost certainly in better shape too). He, OTOH, got a few days training at the academy, maybe two weeks if he was lucky. He’s good compared to a drunk or someone with zero training. She’s good compared to the cop. Her instructor, male or female, is good compared to her.

    Which is how steps over and reverses his trip, takes a dominant position and twists him into a pretzel in under 90 seconds (this is not an exaggeration, we used to time the trash talking cops who came in, best was ~93 seconds to unconscious because the girl didn’t really want to choke him out and expected a tap) while to the untrained eye she does this with ninja speed while the more experienced folks just lol about it in real time.

    You can almost watch the gears in his head turn and then you can literally watch the desperation rising on his face as this gets worse and worse and worse. The inevitability of what’s happening and his complete impotence to stop it no matter how hard he tries or how much strength he uses causes a visible fear response, as it should. [There is something terrifying the first time you know you can bench press someone off of you and then realizing you just helped them cartwheel over you to an even better position and that you can do nothing to stop this.]

    A wider and deeper experience set provides a capacity to immediately know what is and what is not a threat. This reduces the need for thinking to discriminate about things you already have a deep understanding of and experience with.

    That capacity puts you several steps ahead of someone with less capacity. Run that forward and you end up with a large burly cop facing the choices of snap, tap or nap to a girl less than half his size. She doesn’t need power, she has technique and experience to stay multiple steps ahead of him. She feels and sees telegraphs he doesn’t even know he’s making. That’s because she’s seen them before, many times.

    She almost certainly won’t win a match based on power, like boxing, but as long as she can keep this in the world of grappling, she’s going to dominate this guy. Not because she’s a ninja but because this is her world many hours a week and it’s his a few seconds a month at most. If she cross trains with anything that allows kicks, the cop mostly is at her mercy standing or on the ground because footwork and grappling combined are very hard to beat if you have to go hands on.

    So, either way, he has to close with and grapple with her to “take custody”. That’s his job and he doesn’t realize he’s entering a world where she has deep and broad experience comparatively. She rolls with guys who are bigger, stronger and more skilled than the cop and she wins. The cop’s a comparative walk in the park.

    And it’s all because she eliminates a lot of noise and therefore “OODAs” much faster while also having a wider set of options she can leverage because she’s moving faster through her options.

    This is why our most dedicated students are cops. They came in thinking they knew some shit, often ran their mouths, annoyed the instructor, got trashed by high school girl and said “Oh, shit, if I ran into that on the street…”.

    They’ll all tell you the same thing. They didn’t believe it was possible until it happened to them so fast in made their head spin.

    • It’s always fun to break in the new recruits. It’s also good for training. It helps to see how it feels to get those submissions.

  14. Theoretically, we’re constantly in an weak, inattentive OODA. If I go to a new store looking for bananas, I’m looking at the layout, figuring out where produce should be, setting my course, and grabbing my nanners. If them yellow long bois aren’t present, reset and repeat within the new reality. If I got em, I’ll OODA my butt to check out, OODA out to my whip, OODA on home, and wait for the greenies to go yellow. If anywhere along the line some dingus pulls a glizzy I’d like to think I’d backburner my fruit grab and throw ballistic hate as trained. Back to the nanners in due time.

    • You’re correct.

      OODA is just a description of how the brain actually works and how you use that to your advantage for people who don’t want a deeper explanation but have some need of understanding the basics.

      From running an ambush to dogfighting to advertising to firing someone on a Friday, it’s all different flavors of the same basic thing.

      There are a bunch of ways to say it, but “OODA” is the one that makes the most sense for the most people in the most situations and also doesn’t scare the womenfolk in HR.

  15. Don’t get too deep into this psychological BS when it comes to self-defense. Rely on your gut instincts when a situation makes you ‘nervous’. Get your nose out of your phone, beware of your surroundings, carry your gun and be prepared to use it if it becomes necessary. Before you ever get (or carry) a gun for protection, you must have the mind-set to be willing and able to kill another human being if need be. No hesitation allowed. It must be an instant decision and action. A deadly threat can materialize in the blink of an eye. You won’t have time to get out your que card and check off all the indicators to see if you should employ deadly force. Back in the ’80’s, the FBI came up with a ‘Color Code’ for police to ‘help’ them assess threat levels and the ‘proper’ response. I believe it was White, Green, Yellow, and Red. It didn’t work because, as any LEO will tell you from experience, a situation can go from OK to shit in .001 of a second. Be prepared mentally, carry your gun, be proficient with it and get your head out of your ass when out in public.

  16. Observed their right foot comming up, oriented my body to deflect the blow, decided their left guard was down and foot looped around and acted upon their neck.
    8-27-2022, I even got a trophy but it was a cake.

  17. Learning the same thing in a simpler format is what I do during self defense training. My instructor calls it PAFI, perceive-analyze-formulate-imitate. Your brain takes about .5 to 1.5 seconds to go through this process. Through proper training you can skip the analyze and formulate steps. You go from perceive to initiate in about .3 seconds. The conscious brain is slow. With training you depend on the subconscious brain to “react” to a threat. This method works great for hand to hand as well as weapons defense. Training sometimes is just playing the “what if” game. If you have thought about it then you are less likely to freeze when things happen.

  18. I have found OODA to be simple if practice, training the mind to shift from being on reactive defense to offense making the other react to me.
    As a therapist I use OODA to help female clients who have been assaulted or worse to gain confidence to make choices rather than succumbing to freezing from fear. They are more aware of their surroundings to anticipate problems.
    My hope is that OODA will prevent scenarios from closing to 3 yards thus giving me more of an advantage.

  19. After reading Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, the conclusion I came to was that his system was designed to get you to process info faster than your opponent and get inside his OODA loop. In order to do that you have to train and have some pre-planned actions to take when a possible scenario occurs. In a self-defense situation that can be getting off the X, drawing and employing your weapon against the bad guy, or tactically retreating. Whichever action seems best. At the Active Self Protection YouTube channel John breaks down self-defense videos and discusses what went right or wrong. He mentions that whomever gets the first anatomically significant shot usually wins the encounter.

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