The OODA Loop
How do you apply critical thinking in martial arts? Whether or not you know it, whenever you apply your knowledge in self-defense, you are participating in your own OODA Loop. The OODA is defined as Observe, Orient, Decide, & Act. It is a loop because it is a continuous process. As soon as you act, you begin the loop again, observing the results of your actions, orienting to the new circumstances, deciding, and acting again.
The OODA loop was invented by Colonel John Boyd to explain why some pilots were more successful than others. His idea was eventually used by all branches of the military, and in many ways has revolutionized how modern wars are fought. Since we are discussing martial arts, in essence a military doctrine on a personal level, the OODA has direct and insightful application.
One of the observations that Boyd made is that victorious pilots, and even armies, were often successful because they reacted faster than their opponents. Because the OODA loop itself is somewhat intrinsic in our how we conduct operations (i.e. war or self-defense), Boyd noted that the victorious armies had intact OODA loops. When they launched an attack, for instance, the enemy was forced to adapt and had to restart the loop. If the attacker was able to continually disrupt the enemy's OODA loop, so that they often had to revert to the observe or orient phase, then the attacker had a clear advantage. This primarily refers to the C2 (Command and Control) of the enemy.
As a more relevant example, we can look at a hypothetical attack on a martial artist by a standard street thug. By the time the attacker makes his move, he has already entered the act stage of his own loop. He had observed a person walking on the street with her head down, oriented to the situation by noting that she wasn't paying attention to her surroundings and that he was probably stronger, and then decided to act. If the martial artist is caught unaware, then her loop is already behind. She had to observe and orient before she can act. Even if you are surprised, you still have to figure out what is going on. This can happen quickly, but she may only have a few seconds of time to defend herself. If she cannot observe and orient fast enough, she won't be able to act before the attacker. However, if she is quick and she sees the attacker and realizes what he is (i.e. observe and orient in the OODA), she can decide to act as well. She may already have a plan when the attacker makes his move. The attacker may not expect the martial artist to try anything, and when she does he will have to restart his own loop. By the time he orients himself to the new circumstances, the martial artist may have knocked him out.
In war, and self-defense, knowing how the OODA loop works can give you an advantage. You shouldn't actually try to keep track of what OODA state you are in, though. The OODA is how we make decisions. We don't have think about it, because we naturally do it. When we apply it to self-defense situations, however, we gain an advantage over our opponents. Some of the applications of the OODA loop are:
- React first - Your OODA should be faster than your opponent's. This is probably one of the most important aspects of applying the OODA loop to self-defense. It comes as no surprise that reacting before your opponent can be an advantage. When you act first, your opponent must react to you. You force him to adjust his "plan". He must then reassess the situation. This process happens very quickly, but in a fight, when microseconds can make a difference, it can significantly hinder him. By moving through the OODA loop faster than your opponent, you can anticipate his next moves. If so, you can have a counter for it. When you know what's coming, or at least likely, you won't have to come up with a defense as it happens. You may not be able to anticipate everything that might happen, but that should be part of your critical thinking. It may be a cliche, but it is a valid one. Expect the unexpected, but also know what is likely to happen as well. In MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) competitions, it is clear when an opponent is constantly reacting to a dominant fighter. Sometimes the slow fighter gets lucky, but not usually. Although the caliber of MMA competitions usually means that such disparities are rare, it clearly shows that, while raw speed is important, reaction speed is at least as important, if not more so.
- Use the OODA - Many people act without thinking. This is like going directly to the decide and act steps without the observe and orient steps. When fighters do this, they are operating on "instinct" or habit, which usually means something desperate or something stupid. Although instincts can be good, it is probably quite safe to say that, in self-defense, you should never act without getting as much information as possible. In some situations, you many have very little time to do this, but you should use every last microsecond to maximize your awareness. Thus, you may not have any time to observe and orient, but if you do you should use it. Some martial arts styles emphasize immediately and completely instinctive reaction based on years of drills. The problem with this is that the moment you're in a similar situation, you can't just react without thinking. Not everyone who puts their hand on your shoulder deserves to have their wrist broken. In war, this was possible, but now, you really do need to observe before you can react. What if the hand on your shoulder, interpreted as an attack, was really a friendly tap from an officer of the law asking if you dropped your wallet?
- Disrupt your opponent's OODA - The OODA loop is the process of making informed decisions. When you prevent your opponent from doing so, you have a huge advantage. You can disrupt your opponent's loop by having a faster loop. Whenever you act first, you are forcing your opponent to restart the loop. You can also exploit the OODA by purposefully misleading your opponent. Even if your OODA loop is slower (i.e. your opponent is reacting faster), you may be able to deceive him. For instance, you throw repeated kicks to your opponent's legs. Your opponent's OODA is faster, and he can anticipate your kick and either check it or block it. However, instead of throwing a kick to the leg, you throw it to his head. Although he may have anticipated that, this is a classic sparring technique. You can apply this principle to all aspects of fighting. It is simply fooling your opponent, or making him think you're going to do something when you're doing something else. Another way to disrupt the loop is to prevent your opponent from observing. This can mean anything from turning the lights off to brushing your hand into his eyes. Of course, the tricky part is making sure you don't disrupt you own observe state as well, which turning off the lights would probably do.
Since having a faster OODA loop is important, how do we make it faster? The more time we have to observe, the more information we'll have. However, in a fight or on the battlefield, martial artists or commanders can't take too long to make a decision. In an ideal conflict, you would know everything about your opponent. If you can imagine knowing exactly who is trying to attack you, how strong he is, what his weaknesses are, what attack he will use, what he is thinking when he is attacking, what he is afraid of, what he thinks of you, what specific punches will render him unconscious, what words will convince him to stop, and anything else you might want to know, you have an idea of the omnipotent power you would have. However, most people do not claim to know everything, so we have to make a decision on less than perfect intelligence about our opponent.
So how much should we know? It is better to wait until you know as much as possible every time? Is it better to react quicker? This is more of an art than a science. All of the great military commanders and marital artists had to have known the tradeoff between obtaining information and acting quickly. So what did they do?
Most of the greatest commanders in history were risk takers, but that doesn't mean they acted without thought. For instance, Alexander the Great, one of the most famous, and, quite possibly, one of the greatest, commanders in history is known for his excellent decision-making. He was certainly well aware of the value of information. However, he was also aware that decisions had to be timely. He couldn't have been aware of everything that was happening, but he knew what he had to pay attention to. Knowing what is relevant to a situation is critical. Alexander had to make decisions like whether or not the enemy's cavalry was a threat it his left flank, because that was extremely relevant to the outcome of the battle. For a martial artist, this can be something like paying attention to the exits of a building or the mental state of an adversary. By separating relevant information from non-relevant information we can make decisions faster because we don't have to spend as much time gathering it. What is relevant to a particular situation is very intrinsic to the situation, so a martial artist will have to use his or her own experience and critical thinking skills to gather the right information. This is where training is helpful, even crucial.
After weeding out the extraneous stuff, how much information should we obtain before we act? Opinion varies a lot, but it shouldn't be too much or too little. General Colin Powell advocated that you shouldn't act until you have 40 to 70 percent knowledge, but this itself is ambiguous. On the battlefield, this may work, but a martial artist cannot possibly know when he knows everything (relevant) about a situation.
There are no rules for gathering information, but as long as you can, you should endeavor to do so. Information can allow you to diffuse a situation without having to resort to violence. It can allow you to escape a situation as well. Information is the key to our decision making process. Understanding the OODA loop and what factors, like information, speed, and how we can affect others by manipulating their decision cycles, can help us in almost any situation.
- Sde-Or I, Yanilov E. Krav Maga. Berkley, CA: Frog, Ltd., 2001
- The Essential Boyd: http://www.belisarius.com/modern_business_strategy/hammond/essential_boyd.htm: July 2, 2006