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The OODA Loop: The Reason We Train

The OODA Loop is a decision-making cycle that was first conceived by Air Force Colonel John Boyd in the 1950s. Boyd flew as a wingman on F-86 Sabres in the Korean War and despite never having made a kill; he went on to become the top air-to-air combat strategist in the world, so much so that he was called out of retirement to help plan the air war in the first Gulf War.

Boyd's OODA Loop concept, in its simplest form, is that the key to victory is making correct decisions quicker than your opponent. This does not necessarily always mean physical confrontation and the OODA Loop is a high-level concept that can be applied beyond military aerial engagements to corporations, lawyers in court and in law enforcement. The fact of the matter is that human beings are constantly going through OODA Loops as they conduct their daily lives.

The OODA loop breaks down into four components:

  • Observe – this is simple data collection, that which can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched.
  • Orient – this is the basic analysis of the data that is collected in order to gain perspective.
  • Decide – this is how the appropriate course of action will be determined based on that perspective.
  • Action – this is moving forward with the decision physically.

These four stages are interrelated and quite often overlap. Moreover is that they should never be thought of as static. Situations and environments can change, especially in police work. What seems like a routine course of action can change in a heartbeat.

The best way to shorten the cycle of the OODA loop is through training. Any tactical instructor worth his salt (whether its firearms, driving or hand-to-hand fighting) will not want his student to encounter something for the first time in the field.

This is why firearms instructors have students perform malfunction drills and seek to break bad habits such as policing brass, picking up discarded magazines or having students shoot from the weaker hand. By constantly and randomly performing these types of drills, the student will ideally perform them as second nature, thereby shortening their phase of the loop.

With driving it may be as simple as testing anti-lock brakes on a slick surface in a parking lot after a rain storm so that the driver knows how the vehicle will handle in the event they have to apply the brakes at a high rate of speed in inclement weather.

When it comes to fighting and self-defense, the simplest and most natural “techniques” or moves are practiced over and over to make them instinctive rather than reactive so that when they are performed for real, they will be the most effective. The old adage with regard to OODA Loops is: “Action beats reaction.”

People who do not train will have longer OODA loops when confronted by an unknown or unforeseen situation. Whenever an officer decides to skip a training session, he is unknowingly giving the bad guys an advantage by slowing down his OODA loop and increasing the speed of theirs.

One can play mental games with the OODA Loop by putting forth hypothetical situations. “If I am walking into the gas station and find myself in the midst of a robbery and have no immediate way to call for backup, I will do this…” Mental exercises are great ways to help speed up the various stages of the OODA loop, but equally important is to know how to slow down or even break the loop of your opponent.

We will look at this in part two.

About Mike S.

Mike has worked around firearms his entire adult life starting as a Marine Rifleman at 17 and continuing as a gunsmith, ballistician, instructor, consultant and writer. An avid shooter and martial artist, he has written over 1000 articles about Mixed Martial Arts, boxing, knives and firearms for online media and print magazines such as RECOIL, Gun Digest's Tactical Gear, Blade, and SWAT. 

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