Evolution of the OODA Loop

Integrating Reaction and Recognition into the thought process for responses during an Ambush. 
by Rob Pincus 

Rapid decision making during a fight relies on well established patterns of stimulus and response that take into account our natural reactions. Many people in the training community use The OODA Loop concept when discussing this decision making process, but I think that there are better terms and concepts to help us understand why a Counter Ambush Training Model is vital to establishing the non-cognitive ability to respond efficiently and appropriately in a life threatening situation.

“The OODA Loop”, as developed by Col. John Boyd, describes a repeating cycle of decision making that is constantly occurring when you are in a fight. OODA has been used to help people understand everything from (originally) the actions of a fighter pilot, through military strategic planning to close quarters combatives. It has even been adopted by public policy makers and multi-national corporations to describe management decision making in large organizations. The letters stand for:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

Taken at face value, reading the words literally as many instructors and students in our community do, it represents a cumbersome process. Anyone who has ever been in a fight, or seen video of a fight, will be hard pressed to identify any specific moments where complex decision making was going on. In fact, most will realize that the timespan of a complete OODA Loop (from an Observation to an Action)  in a lethal conflict doesn’t leave much room for the kind of “A or B?” thought process that most of us connect with the word “decide”.  An in depth study of Boyd’s own meanings and interpretations of the simple words in OODA will reveal a much more complex, and sometimes subtle, process. Boyd’s own explanations of what he meant by “orient”, for example, include references to one’s beliefs, expectations, training and plans. In Boyd’s most thorough discussions of The OODA Loop, there is definitely accounting for the kind of rapid decision making, and instinctive reaction that we actually see in real dynamic critical incidents.

Over the past decade, the emphasis that I have seen from many instructors when discussing the OODA Loop has been on “getting inside” the bad guyÕs own decision making process and interrupting their plan. There is no doubt that this approach to OODA has been a great tool for the self defense community to use to explain the concept of how doing anything during a fight instead of being a helpless victim can throw off your attacker. Boyd himself showed how some of the greatest military leaders in history had used rapidly changing tactics and maneuvers to keep their enemies guessing long enough to defeat them. He recognized that this was the key to survival in a dogfight at least as much as the key to conquering a country or continent. The problem with the usual application of the OODA Cycle to this discussion is that bad guys don’t really go into brain lock when you step to the left or move in closer to them. All humans have natural reactions and the ability to apply learned techniques or to improvise intuitive responses incredibly rapidly when dealing with rapidly changing circumstances. The key to beating an opponent is to train your learned responses directly with the appropriate learned stimulus so that you can force them into an improvisation mode that will increase your chances of survival.

Counter Ambush Training is all about establishing strong ties between Learned Stimuli and Trained Responses. At I.C.E. Training, we describe this process most simply in the Warrior Expert Theory:

Through Frequent and Realistic Training, one can learn to use the power of Recognition to respond more Efficiently during a dynamic critical incident.


The key word is “recognition”. Recognition is the method of the expert. When one has learned patterns of information well enough to make non-cognitive decisions, we say that one “recognizes” something. If I can learn to “decide” to reload when I have “observed” slide lock through the way the gun feels, I have used recognition to implement a learned response “action”. In this way, with the right training model, recognition can replace the cumbersome concept of “decide” in the cycle.

Because we are talking about an ambush, we must also integrate our natural Reactions into the model. In Boyd’s discussions natural reactions were certainly accounted for in his “Orient” phase. Because naturally focusing (physically and mentally) are inherent to our natural reactions to being surprised, and are the precursors to many other natural reactions during a lethal fight (changes in heart rate, bloodflow, vision, hearing, etc., etc.), I prefer to use the word “React” to cover this step in the cycle.

“Observations” consist of all the information we take in, not just what we see. A loud noise, the feeling of being grabbed and all of the non-perceived things that our senses take in many times a second are all observations. It is observations that start the cycle, of course. When we think of creating Stimulus-Response patterns, however, we don’t think of analyzing the data in the way that most people do when they first think of an “observation”. We need to keep in mind, especially when designing our training model and structuring our practice routines, that tying the response to the appropriate stimulus is key.

For instance, if the mechanics of a reload are practiced without the stimulus of live-fire slide lock. When the gun runs empty in the actual fight the shooter is forced to cognitively analyze the failure, and then (hopefully) recognize that the situation calls for the response of a reload. If instead all training for the emergency reload starts with realistic surprise (un-staged) slide lock during live fire, the shooter will be more likely to skip the time-consuming (and easily interrupted) analytical step and proceed directly to the learned (practiced) response of reloading the gun. This makes the whole process more efficient, and shows the need for a keen appreciation of how non-cognitive observations (ones that we don’t need to process at a high level because of frequent exposure) can speed our response time.
Ultimately, we want to have a way that is trained and/or planned to respond to the threat, but we have to accept that we may not. If we fail to train for a situation, we will need to Improvise in the moment (or we freeze, a true worst case scenario!) coming up with something on the fly. Improvisation shouldn’t be seen as an automatic fail during the fight. In fact, many people who are untrained, or whose training wasn’t appropriate to the context of their fight (eg- those who train to shoot in the Weaver Position, but improvise an isosceles response during in an actual counter ambush moment), often prevail. We humans are pretty good are improvisation but, we are better when we’ve trained realistically to respond efficiently. So, in the place of the generic “Act”, in a truly dynamic chaotic situation I believe we either see a learned “response” or we “improvise”.
So, the evolution of the OODA Loop looks like this:

For the appropriately trained person, ORRR,:

  • Observe
  • React
  • Recognize
  • Respond

For the untrained (or miss-trained) person, ORI:

  • Observe
  • React
  • Improvise

Of course, we want to Respond so efficiently (via ORRR) that we take our enemy out of their plan and force them into an ORI Loop that we can defeat more easily. Looked at from the opposite perspective, we want to make sure that we have been planning, selecting gear and training in a way that prevents us from being overwhelmed by cognitive and non-cognitive observations that we hadn’t trained for or can’t cope with. Our goal needs to be Training in Context, a key component to capitalizing on everything that humans do well under stress. To obsess over performance in isolation misses the point of learning appropriate stimulus-response pattern development and often prevents people from choosing efficient choices in gear and techniques for the broadest range of plausible circumstances. When reality interrupts the performance plan from a controlled environment, we are forced to fall back into improvisation.

Think about how this model fits in to your observations of actual fights and how it relates to your training model.

Are you depending on time to analyze and make a complex decision?

Are you setting yourself up for ORRR or ORI ?

Are you leaving Stimulus-Response out of your training?

Col. John Boyd was a genius who bucked the system time and time again to help people understand his observations. Since he first proposed his OODA method of looking at the problem, for a specific audience, it has been morphed, co-opted and adjusted to fit a variety of contexts. There is no doubt that, when being proactive and or even planning for how to deal with a future event that is relatively slow moving in nature (such as the land invasion of a country or a corporate take over) the traditional OODA Loop serves us well.

In the context of Counter Ambush Training and dynamic chaotic lethal fights, integrating a more obvious emphasis on the power of recognition and focusing on stimulus-response patterns in our training is a natural evolution.

4 thoughts on “Evolution of the OODA Loop”

  1. Observe, Recognize, React and Respond. That’s the order, I would think. Not trying to sharp shoot you, just saying.

    1. No, Ric, you missed some of the point. You REACT first, naturally, to any stimuli significantly before (and often WITHOUT) “recognition” of what that stimuli is.
      If it went the other way around, you would put you hand on a hot stove, OBSERVE the heat through the sense of touch and then RECOGNIZE that the stove was on before your reaction to remove your hand… that doesn’t happen.

    1. Yes… IADs “Immediate Action Drills” are based on this same concept, tie a learned response to a learned stimuli and shortcut the system because no “decision” has to be made.

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