The OODA Loop and Self-Protection

Today I am going to take a look at the OODA Loop and the role that it plays in self-defense/self-protection.

For those who do not know, the OODA Loop is the name given to the decision-making process. The term itself comes from Colonel John Boyd who was researching the mental process used by fighter pilots in combat.


The letters stand for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.

Observe: As applied to our study, this stage is where an event is just beginning. We may observe a person stepping out of the shadows, a group that splits up when we come into their view, or a person seemingly following us. The process of decision-making cannot even begin until there is something observed. 

This does bring us right back to awareness. Awareness needs to be Self-Defense 101. The things listed above might go completely unnoticed if I am engrossed by my smart phone. And without awareness, you are no better off than the person sucker punched from behind.

Orient: Assuming we were aware enough to notice something beginning to happen, the next step in the process is the stage Colonel Boyd named orient. For our purposes, we can look at each of the above listed events. 

A person steps out of the shadows. Our brain would straight away determine whether or not we knew them, if they appear threatening, and other things such as our position relative to theirs, as well as whether or not we are about to bump into them. These are going to be determined by most healthy people without the need to consciously go through a list of questions. Someone properly trained may even instantly note whether or not the person stepping from the shadows has anything in their hands and if so; what? This level of training takes time, but it is very nice to have, and worth the effort to develop.

Decide: Once the information is processed, the actual decision must be made. Here, I am going to try to stay off of my soapbox, but will still interject that the “more and more technique” martial arts approach does a huge disservice to the person looking to develop the ability to defend themselves in an assault. The brain is going to decide what to do, but the more we clutter it with different choices, the longer this stage of our process will last. If we are able to keep it down to a few solid choices, we will be must better off in just getting through this stage quickly.

Act: At this point we will act based on all of the information we had and the options our experience or lack thereof left on the table.

To be clear, all of this happens incredibly fast. Unfortunately, so does assault. It is very easy to get stuck in a shortened loop of observe-observe-observe.

The OODA Loop is fascinating to me in that it isn’t all bad news. Yes, if you clutter your monkey brain with all kinds of nonsense it will slow the decision-making process considerably. But do you have to clutter? No! You have every faculty needed to simplify.

And understanding the OODA Loop will allow you to use it to your advantage. Make the other guy get stuck in the observe-observe-observe short-circuit. Easier said than done, I know, but it can add an interesting study to your training.


  1. That is brilliant! Could you write a guide on how to actually implement all the lessons learned here in training?


  2. Wallace Smedley says:

    Thank you for the kind words.
    The application of the OODA Loop to self-defense training is something I read about from many different resources. Off the top of my head I think of the writing of Marc MacYoung, Kris Wilder, Rory Miller, Lawrence Kane, Loren Christiansen, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, and Iain Abernethy, just to name a few. I have every intent to publish here both articles and video of how I use this concept in class, but I suggest in the mean time, please check into the work of the people I listed here.

    Thank you for reading!


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