When confronted by an aggressive person, whether it’s training in a self-defense school or an actual conflict situation, your mind always follows a predictable set pattern. This pattern, which is well known and has been taught to Special Operations law enforcement and military teams for many years, is referred to as the O.O.D.A. (pronounced “o-da”) process. It is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. Every time your brain senses danger, it takes this sequential path. It never changes the order or skips a step. The following is a detailed explanation of the components of the O.O.D.A. process, along with some information to help you use this knowledge to your advantage in a conflict.

During the first phase of the O.O.D.A. process, Observe, you are alerted to danger by four of your five senses: sight, hearing, smell, and touch. Sight is undoubtedly the sense you rely on the most in conflict situations. The images you see before a conflict begins is packed with information – someone walking toward you, a car blocking your path, the glint of a knife, the intention in the attacker’s eyes, a sucker punch visible in your peripheral vision, or any number of visual cues

There are will also be a number of important details you won’t see due to a perceptual distortion phenomenon called “tunnel vision.” Whenever you are in a high risk situation your vision tends to be limited to the most immediate threat confronting you. Everything else tends to be blocked out. It is as though you are looking down a very narrow tunnel and are oblivious to anything outside of your limited line of sight. For example, when I was working as a patrol police officer most of the armed-robbery victims that I would interview could remember many details about the gun that the robber had used to hold them up, yet they could not remember the physical description of the robber. Some people were not able to identify the suspect during a Field Show Up (the police have a suspect to look out on display) even if they saw him again ten minutes later. During the crisis their minds were so focused on the weapon that they never looked at the face of the suspect, even though he may have been standing only three feet (1 meter) in front of the person.

I’ve had tunnel vision myself. One night I kicked open someone’s bedroom door while investigating suspicious circumstances and saw one of the most grotesque dead bodies that I had ever seen. This lady’s lifeless face was staring right at me with her lifeless eyes as my flashlight beam caught her face from two steps away. I was so focused on that face that I was no longer aware of my surroundings. It was only for a second or two, but it is enough for a cop to forget about the still existing possible dangers and get shot. I snapped out of it and told myself, “What if the murderer is still in the dark room with her?” I then quickly swept the room with my flashlight and pistol, and carried out the rest of my search.

Of course tunnel vision occurs in conflict all of the time, and it’s always a potential disadvantage. In training, and in actual conflict situations, people get into the most trouble with multiple attackers. They get so focused on one attacker that they just don’t see the other one coming. Or, when a weapon enters the equation everything else is blocked out. Law enforcement officers and combat soldiers who have experienced several high-risk situations tend to “see better” than most people. They make better observers because of training and experience. Being familiar with something permits the mind to process more information at a faster rate.

The way you can overcome tunnel vision and be a better observer, although it will never completely go away, is to experience first hand high-risk situations. If this cannot be accomplished through your current occupation, then it certainly can be accomplished through good reality-based training; more specifically, realistic scenarios.

Slowing down a person’s reaction time is a two-way street. SWAT entry teams wear Kevlar helmets, black hoods (called balaclavas), and goggles not only for protection, but to slow down the suspect’s O.O.D.A. process by making them take a longer time at observing. The suspect who sees his door come crashing down, and a human form that looks more alien than human descending upon him, forces the suspect’s brain to take more time to register the information, and thus gives a tactical team that crucial moment of advantage before the suspect can go on with the next steps of O.O.D.A. and squeeze the trigger, firing upon them or the hostage.

You can also become aware of danger before even seeing it. Hearing is a very powerful tool in detecting danger: the sound of a growling dog may keep you from jumping a wall, a noise in the back bedroom could mean avoiding an intruder, and the sound of a magazine being shoved into the magazine well of an assault rifle means you have a window of opportunity to attack or flee. Sounds paint entire pictures in our mind.

As a martial artist you can slow down the observational phase of your opponent with sound. Nearly all martial arts schools, and all military boot camps, teach their students to yell out when launching an attack or counterattack. Naturally there are physical benefits to yelling, also known in Japanese as the Ki-ai (“the meeting together of energy”). A good deep yell not only tightens the abdominal muscles protecting the organs and forces air out of the lungs so the wind won’t be knocked out of you, but it injects energy into your own body as well. An unexplainable fusion occurs between the body and mind and, for a lack of a better term, is called the “warrior yell” in police and military circles. Yet, besides pumping adrenaline throughout your body the warrior yell also serves to intimidate your opponent; along with fierceness in your face (visual cues). A loud vicious yell forces a longer observation time (hearing time) from your opponent. The opponent must process this information and determine what it means. A half-second or full second delay in his O.O.D.A. process may mean the difference between you landing a good solid punch or kick through his body or getting it blocked and being unsuccessful.

Keep in mind that your opponent may also try to slow down your observation phase as well. That’s why it’s important to condition yourself to become immune to such tactics. This can be done through reality-based scenarios where the attacker begins with a loud yell, or just starts ranting and raving. The goal is to get to a point in your training where yelling and screaming doesn’t bother you or hinder you from your tactical objective. In military and police sniper training often times the instructor will scream and yell inches (centimeters) away from a sniper student who is about to make a critical shot to see if the sniper will be distracted or not. So it should be with the martial artist.

Just as there is the perceptual distortion phenomena known as tunnel vision there also exist “tunnel hearing.” It is not uncommon for a person to be in a gun battle and not know how many shots were fired. Some police officers have said that they didn’t even hear their own gun go off during a gun battle. It sounds far fetched, but unless you experience it yourself you just won’t know. Again, like anything, tunnel hearing can be minimized through realistic scenario training.

We don’t always think of smell as a tool that we can use in high-risk situations, but we use it more often than we realize. Smell can also play a key role in self-defense. The smell of smoke can alert you to a fire. The smell of blood will make you more cautious going around a corner, or the smell of alcohol on someone’s breath may signal a red flag in your mind. In the military, soldiers are taught to recognize certain smells during CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) training such as a chemical weapons attack. If a chemical is smelled the observer yells out, “Gas!” and dawns on his or her gas mask as should the rest of squad. In a street situation you may detect the smell of pepper spray and take the appropriate evasive actions because of it. Smelling pepper spray beforehand in training prepares you for such possible attacks. More and more criminals worldwide are coming right up to their victims, spraying them, and stripping them of their valuables, or worse. Of course, criminals are not always 100% successful. You may end up smelling a missed stream of pepper spray or mace and immediately cover up to avoid the next stream in your face.

Touch is obviously the most intimate form of observation. You may not see or hear an attack, but a sharp pain to anywhere on your body could mean that you may have just been shot (at long distances bullets are felt before they are heard) or stabbed. In some situations you may feel somebody grab onto you. Just by sensing one single touch your mind is able to proceed to the next step of the O.O.D.A. process. As a side note, if someone does grab a hold of you, or you are able to touch them, Kinetic Sensation Response training (training drills that I developed based on my previous Wing Chun Gung fu training, but modified for real-world applications) allows you to know what the opponent’s next move will be based upon physical dynamics learned in the sensitivity drill.

Once you have seen, heard, smelled or have felt a threat, your mind seeks to orient you (in relationship to space and time) to the threat. Your mind begins a series of rapid calculations: Is the threat immediate? How much distance is between the target and me? Is my environment advantageous to me or a big disadvantage? Do I have an avenue of escape? Where is the next strike coming from? Once your brain figures out where everything is in relation to your body it will immediately go to the next phase.

One way criminals like to disorient their victims is to “blind side” them. In other words, launch a sneak attack. They either jump you from behind or walk right up to you and cold cock (punch you without warning) you in the face. Such tactics disorients the victim momentarily. In military operations a common ploy is to have a distraction in the in the direction you want the enemy’s attention diverted (using explosions, a token attack, or some other ruse) then attack them from the opposite direction of the diversion. Again, the reason SWAT teams throw flashbangs (hand grenades that give off intense light and noise, but do not kill or wound) into a room before going in is to disorient the suspect; to slow down the O.O.D.A. process.

Once the human mind has observed and oriented itself to the threat it must then decide what to do about it. If you are being robbed for example, you must decide whether you are going to comply with the robber’s demands and hand over the money, run, or fight. Your decision is based upon what you have observed and your orientation. If the robber is threatening to beat you up with his bare hands, that’s one thing, if he has a gun, that’s another. Many factors determine what you will decide. Many untrained people are paralyzed with fear and make no decision at all. The decision is made for them by the suspect’s next move. Do you want to place your safety in some criminal’s hands? Going along with the criminal’s demands does not always guarantee your safety. You have to decide at what point you must take action. Deciding what course of action you’re going to take for various crimes or situations before hand will determine what you do in real life. You’ll be better prepared if you run various scenarios through your mind from time to time.

Your training will mold your decision-making abilities. The more realistic the training, the better the decisions you’re going to make. On the other hand, we also want to slow down the opponent’s decision-making abilities in a conflict. One way to slow down your opponent’s decision-making abilities is to have a confident demeanor (shown on the Jim Wagner Use-of-Force Ladder). In my career I’ve told several unarmed suspects who were approaching me to stop, but they kept walking towards me in a threatening manner anyway. I didn’t know if they had a concealed weapon or not, but I knew for sure that they were sizing me up. If my warning went unheeded then I pointed my pistol right at the center of their chest; in a good modified isosceles shooting stance, ready to fire. With that movement, coupled with the dead serious look in my eyes, I’ve never had someone cross my “imaginary line in the sand” yet, thank God. Body language tells it all. My body language told them in no uncertain terms, IF YOU TAKE ONE MORE STEP YOU ARE GOING TO GET TWO OR MORE BULLETS IN YOUR CHEST.

Juvenile gang members thrive on intimidating their victims with hard stares, blaring words and posturing like a rooster, but in reality most gang members are outright cowards in one-on-one situations. If confronted by these little predators a strong defense is sometimes enough to send them whimpering just long enough for you to escape or get help. However, don’t ever underestimate them. There are many who will kill you for your shoes or the coins in your pocket.

Another element that may slow down an attacker’s decision-making process is screaming out “Help!” or “Fire!” Now, you force the criminal to deal with being discovered. Even if he tries to silence you, in the back of his mind he’s wondering if anyone heard the cry and is phoning the police. In the training environment you can slow down your opponent’s decision-making abilities by showing no signs of pain or defeat while sparring. Your opponent will come to believe his attack is of little or no affect. A delay caused by your opponent switching tactics in order to try something different may be your golden opportunity. The famous boxer Mohammed Ali used to lure his opponents into a false sense of security by backing up into the ropes and pretending that he was weakening. When the opponent thought that “the fight” from Ali was gone, Ali would slip away from the ropes and pummel the guy.

The last task for the mind to complete in the O.O.D.A. process is to act upon the decision made. This is the actual flight, flight or submit response in conflict. It’s the physical part of the process.

Once you have decided the proper course of action, you must act immediately. There must be no reservations, and you must be fully committed to your decision. You must tell yourself that the course that you have selected is the right one and give it everything you’ve got, win or lose. When you are dealing with conflicts that are decided in seconds you can’t afford to be half-hearted. The U.S. Marines, a branch of the military I have trained extensively with, have a term called “violence of action.” Once a decision has been made they act with violence, meaning that they are going to follow through with their decision 100% and commit to its success. They are going to so overwhelm and intimidate their enemy that success is going to be inevitable.

With training and experience you will not only improve your own O.O.D.A. process, but you will use the opponent’s O.O.D.A. process against him or her. In my own experience I have found out that each time I am in a high risk situation, and that includes realistic scenarios, I improve. What used to slow me down in my own O.O.D.A. process is now assimilated immediately and I move on to the next step more rapidly. When I’m going up against those who would do me harm, I’m taking the tactical high ground by slowing their minds down as well. Now that you know the process, use it.

Be A Hard Target.


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Jim Wagner
Jim Wagner, one of the first self-defense instructor to introduce techniques, tactics, and training methods to survive terrorist attacks and modern crime (active shooters, criminal chemical attacks, drive-by shootings, etc.). His teaching is based on his tactical career as a U.S. Army combat soldier, corrections officer, police officer, S.W.A.T. officer, team leader of a Dignitary Protection Unit for America’s fifth largest Sheriff’s department, a U.S. federal agent counterterrorist during the Global War on Terrorism, Reserve Military Police soldier, military bodyguard, Terrorism Liaison Officer (TLO), Security Forces sergeant, and a team leader of a military Special Reaction Team. He worked in the private security and bodyguarding sectors, most notably protecting Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and working for the Walt Disney Company. Since 2003 Jim has been teaching his Reality-Based Personal Protection system around the world and in martial arts schools, where he offers self-defense instructors a way to increase their business by teaching Terrorism Survival, Crime Survival, and other courses. If you want to become certified to teach at your school, you can purchase the Jim Wagner Reality-Based Personal Protection Instructor Package at a discount through USAdojo.com by using the code USARBPP1706.