Developing the Warrior Mind: Boyd’s OODA loop and Cooper’s Color Code lay the foundation

by Scott on December 18, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Sgt. John Marrs. John’s bio is at the end of this article.

With all of the high-tec equipment available to law enforcement, it is easy to overlook the most important factor in winning a deadly force encounter. That is the proper mindset. Throughout military history, the willingness to fight and resolve to win has been proven as vital to success. If you do not believe this to be true, talk to any combat veteran or officer who has survived such an encounter.

Proper training and equipment are important aspects that must also be present. However, it is the mental preparation of the officers that allows them to see the threat coming and make fast and correct decisions under fire. Perceiving the threat and having a course of action planned requires being aware of your environment at all times.

To give officers the best chance at maintaining vigilance and being able to react quickly, they should understand and apply the “OODA Loop” and “Color Code of Awareness”. These two theories are the foundation of proper combat mindset.

Boyd’s OODA Loop

The OODA Loop was developed by Col. John Boyd, USAF. Col. Boyd was a fighter pilot and trainer of other pilots. “OODA” is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It is called the

OODA “Loop” because it is a continuous and reoccurring process the mind repeats through out the fight. In order to react to a threat, your mind must go through a means of processing it. Here is what the components mean:

OBSERVE: You see the threat or possible threat appear.
ORIENT: You recognize the threat and process possible courses of action.
DECIDE: You select the best course of action.
ACT: You execute the selected course of action.


All of this should occur in a fraction of a second. You will repeat this thought process with every action you take and the suspect’s reaction to what you are doing.

In most deadly encounters, the law enforcement officer is already behind in this process when the fight starts. The suspect has already gone through his OODA Loop and is acting while you are observing. In order to regain the advantage you must process the threat quickly and act. That forces the suspect back to the observe phase. To illustrate, consider the following scenario:
On a traffic stop, the occupant of the vehicle suddenly opens his door and gets out with a gun in his hand. Suspect = Act, Officer = Observe. At this initial phase of the battle, the suspect has the advantage. He has already gone through his OODA Loop and is about to shoot you dead.

You, on the other hand are caught flat-footed. You are walking up to the suspect vehicle, probably in an area where you have no cover. How do you regain the advantage? You quickly sidestep as you draw your weapon and are no longer standing where the suspect thought you would be. Officer = Act, Suspect = Observe. Just this simple movement can make the suspect go through his OODA Loop again while you are laying accurate fire on him. In a gunfight, these small shifts in the fight often determine who lives and who dies.

The above scenario is simplified, but it does show how the process works. While your mind will have to go through the entire loop with each new piece of information that is presented, the bottom line is this; the faster you can go from “Observe” to “Act” the more advantage you will have.

In order to make this transition quickly, it requires training. There are many ways to train your body and mind for this. Sparring, force on force, and scenario training are a few examples. One way is to visualize various scenarios that may occur. Then develop courses of action for each one. This technique will allow you to move quickly through your OODA Loop because you have already Oriented and Decided during your visualization training. That allows you to move directly from Observe to Act. Visualization training has been used for many years by athletes and has proven very beneficial.

Of the utmost importance is that you maintain situational awareness. If you are not aware of your surroundings, you will not properly asses the threat and will be doomed to failure. This brings us to the “Color Code of Awareness”.

Cooper’s Color Code of Awareness

The Color Code of Awareness was developed by Col. Jeff Cooper, USMC. Col. Cooper was a combat veteran and one of the most prolific firearms trainers and theorists of the modern age. He was the founder of Gunsite Firearms Training Institute and has authored many books and articles relating to gun fighting. The color code has been modified over the years by various trainers and schools, but for this article we will focus on Col. Cooper’s model.


The Color Code of Awareness breaks down the amount of mental attention into different levels, each identified by a specific color. The lowest level being “White” and the highest being “Red”. White is when you are totally relaxed and unaware of your surroundings. This is the state you are in when you are asleep. Red is when you are actually in the fight. In between White and Red is where you will spend most of your time.

Yellow, is the condition above White. It is the condition you should be in throughout your day. You are relaxed, but are very aware of what is going on around you. Your eyes are scanning and you recognize things for what they are. If you see a perceived threat, say a man looking at you and reaching into his waste band, you move into the next level, condition Orange.

In condition Orange, you have identified a potential threat and are focused on it. At this phase you should be applying the OODA Loop. You are Orienting on the situation, and Deciding on a course of action. You are also drawing that mental “Line in the sand”. This means you have decided, “if the suspect does A, I will do B”.

Now the suspect removes his hand from his waste band. In it he holds a cell phone. You then see there is no threat and go back to condition Yellow. However, if the suspects hand comes out with a gun, you can immediately execute your plan of action. This is when you enter condition “Red”. Condition Red means the fight is on. All of your attention is on the suspect and you meet the threat with fast, violent action until it is no longer a threat.

Applying the Color Code of Awareness should become a daily occurrence for you. Think about it throughout the day and evaluate what condition you find yourself in. Condition Yellow is where you should be most of the time. If you drift into condition White, you are putting yourself at risk. When you catch yourself there, wake up and get back to Yellow.

I remember when I was serving an assignment as a Bailiff. I found court extremely boring most of the time. It was very difficult to remain in condition Yellow and I would catch myself drifting into condition White. I spent most of my time standing behind a podium, so I put a yellow sticker in the middle of it. When ever I looked at the sticker it reminded me to pay attention, and I’d go back to Yellow.

Study the OODA Loop and Color Code of Awareness. Incorporate it into your daily activities. When the moment of truth comes, and you decisively win your deadly encounter, you’ll be glad you did.

About the author: Sgt. John Marrs

Sgt. John Marrs has been with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department in California since 1988. A prior SWAT operator and Team Leader, he serves as a Firearms Instructor for his agency and the Allan Hancock C.C. Regional Training Site Basic Academy. Marrs is a graduate of the California POST Master Instructor Development Program. He also retired from the California Army National Guard as an Infantry Captain and served as the State Marksmanship Coordinator for California.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Ford December 18, 2009 at 11:34 am

The problem with Mr Cooper’s color chart is that it simply goes from good to bad, then stops. It was John Boyd’s genius to see that the end state (the Action) merely provides the grist for a new Observation, and around and around the loop we go. Even when the enemy pilot goes down in flames, the victor should be Observing > Orienting > Deciding > Acting, even if the final Action is merely to pack up and go home. (And of course a good fighter pilot is Observing all the way home, to avoid being bounced by someone else.)

I have just finished my MA dissertation on John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and how his thinking can be applied to the War on Terror. For more, click on the hotlink above or go to

Blue skies! — Dan Ford

RonBorsch December 28, 2009 at 5:15 pm

John Mars, a well written and documented article, Congratz!

Incidents with law enforcement officers as TARGETS is going to get worse before it gets better. Random actors undoubtedly will be copycatting this with religious fervor coming out of their same hateful and murderous playbook.

We need to keep this incident alive so others can live. Your themes of Awareness and Attention; Plans and Roles; Positioning and Equipment are well taken. Trainers should take note of your work, and officers should print the article so their trainers do not miss it.

(I am presenting “The Final Option” to an international instructor audience in Chicago at ILEETA 2010 that will be dedicated to these fine four officers who unfortunately made their last deadly error).

SEALE Academy Bedford Ohio

Alan John February 14, 2011 at 9:57 pm

A very nice job John.

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