Training the Whole Circle: Blending Boyd’s Cycle and Cooper’s Color Codes

In any comprehensive self-protection training discussion it is inevitable that you will eventually hear mention of Boyd’s Cycle (a.k.a. the OODA loop, which will be used interchangeably throughout this article) and Cooper’s Color Codes.  These concepts are usually used to begin a discussion on situational awareness or the skills required to be ahead of the curve (proactively positioned and precognitive of the many facets involved in any particular scenario) rather than reactive and caught unaware—in the position of trying to stem an attack that you should have seen coming in the first place.  The following is a brief discussion that considers the broad-strokes of these two threat response codes and how we can use them both more effectively as companion strategies in our personal protection training.  In part, my intention is to oversimplify these two important set of training icons to provide the novice with a better working vocabulary.

Cooper’s Color Codes use four colors to represent escalating threat awareness.  Code White is a state of blissful ignorance, where the individual is situationally unaware and dependent on his attacker’s ineptitude for any hope of survival.  Yellow is the state of relaxed alertness with no specific threat.  Orange is the recognition of a specific threat and Red is the state requiring you to be willing to act upon a threat.  Some tactical instructors additionally use the status of Black to indicate active fighting.

In contrast to and in service of Cooper’s Code, the primary function of the OODA loop is to identify the psychological functions required to receive information regarding an individual’s setting.  The acronym is parsed out accordingly: Observe, analyze the material to properly understand context in regard to your code of action, Orient, rank the event as requiring action/non-action, Decide and Act, or engage the target.

These topics are the source of much discussion among personal protection specialists and are at the center of many conversations I’ve had with my friends John Demand of Observation on Demand and Fred Leland from LESC Inc. Both of these gentlemen are on the cutting edge of personal protection training material and come highly recommended as sound and capable teachers.  During a recent rap session, we zeroed in on the fact it is often easy for people to decide when to act but hard, as instructors, to get them to choose their course of action.  When I attended the Executive Protection Institute’s Personal Protection Specialist course the adoption of a proactive mindset was one of the courses’ mantras and it was re-assuring to hear such a group also using it as a training primer; “It is easier to decide when to act than what to do.”

We (John, Fred and I) all seem to be in general agreement that the majority of an individual’s training time, especially if they are Law Enforcement Officers, is spent on the “act” side of the OODA loop and we all pretty much concur that there is a detrimental disconnect between the action training and the all important process used to get there.  The culprit? The premise of most personal protection/tactical training is that there is a well-defined scenario that can be met with force on force within a defined set of parameters.  This leaves out several key skill sets that need to be addressed inside the OODA loop.

intuitive decision making

When we neglect fine tuning observe through orient into decide steps we pass up vital training, specifically skills that would speed our processing and better inform how the final action.  We need to particularly look at training rapid threat recognition skills, for example the ability to discern a person picking an ID from their pocket from the distinct motion of a person drawing a weapon from their pocket.  Broadly, these skills entail facial recognition skills and behavioral assessment skills that increase our ability to orient what we are observing and put it in a frame of reference that makes it easier to discern threat from non-threat.  Developing skills for situational awareness and pattern recognition are key to properly working through Boyd’s cycle because if we are not placing things in their proper context we are potentially ignorant of the implications – in effect, we place ourselves in the White according to Cooper’s codes by neglecting this aspect of tactical training.

In service of observe, orient and decide, I believe the most efficient training strategy fully integrates Cooper’s Color Codes (one’s subjective state) and the OODA loop (one’s objective responses) so that their ability to observe and orient is expedited, enhancing the clarity of the decision criteria and allowing us to begin what I call precognitive scenario planning.  Precognitive scenario planning is much like the mental rehearsal elite athletes use when preparing for a match, race or fight.  Running through countless “what-if” OODA loop scenarios can forge precognitive development: inherent, decisive and appropriate reactions when presented with a particular set of stimulus.  A great first step toward precognitive development is training the eye musculature to remain active and healthy and “rewiring” the brain to use the entire visual stimulus it receives not just the most obvious material people naturally tend to focus on.  Drilling these skills will help prevent perceptual blindness and training only takes a few minutes.

Coupling the observational skill set training (i.e. eye drills, peripheral vision drills) with decision-making (i.e. influences of situational perception, “big picture” observation) gives the individual what Mssr. Demand and Leland call “Full Spectrum” capacity.  This ensures the person/officer can provide freedom from weapons dependence in extreme close quarter ranges by allowing him to react proactively through proximity or distance/cover acquisition with weapons deployment.  It allows the OODA loop to become an ongoing process that is running in the background like a firewall protection on a computer.  It also blends Cooper’s color codes keeping us scanning from yellow to red as we pick up new observations, determine their relevance to our current setting, decide if they warrant further attention or active intervention.

awareness color code chart

A blending of these two models produces an accurate vision of what modern personal protection training must be.  Our dependence on insulated training regimes that do not address an effective blend of the OODA loop and the overview of Cooper’s mindset is an inherently dangerous training system that ignores the reality of high-stress encounters.  The real danger in high-stress settings has to do with how the brain processes information once the chemical constitution of the blood has changed with the release of stress hormones and the reversion to mid-brain thinking that occurs.  That mid-brain thinking is an action/reaction mode that uses known experiential information we have stored to interpret (orient) the information coming in during the high-stress event (observations) in order to assess it (decide) relative to our deciding a course of action (act).

A blended training system forces the individual to refine this precognitive informational database to serve as a predetermined frame of reference regarding the use of lethal force, nonlethal force or no force at all in OODA cycle.  If that database is empty or has information from experience not connected to the event we are undergoing then the person effectively goes into the observe orient phase and stays there not being able to process new information because the mid-brain inhibits new information processing while under extreme stress.  If we have stocked it and rehearsed the skill sets to detect incoming stimulus more quickly, we can access the neural pathways to familiar contexts and reach a decision to act with a clear action delineated by our previous rehearsal skills and practice.

Boyd and Cooper gave clear and focused guidance on the situational awareness and mindset preparedness that are required to function effectively in life and death settings.  The combination of the two seems to be a functional necessity if our training is to represent the best possible way to survive deadly force events.

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