Fighting Mindset, Orientation and OODA – Varg Freeborn

Mindset is a slow, subtle process. It will include “breakthrough” moments, but for the long haul it sets in slowly and creeps up on you. If you stick with it, one day you wake up and you “get it”. At a certain level, your journey really begins there.

Fighting Mindset, Orientation and OODA

This process happens more quickly for those who have experience operating in dangerous environments for prolonged periods of time at a certain stress level. That usually brings along with it life altering events that violently shift your paradigm.

At worst, for most, you may only have one confrontation in your life. Listening to people who have had many is an important part of preparing for that one. There are many verticals (LE, military, criminal underworld) that put people in a position to have to perform it, deal with the aftermath, live with it, and be ready to roll out and do it all over again the next day. Having experienced it does not necessarily mean you can teach others about it, but I do believe it is one requirement to be able to articulate it properly.

Many people can not deal with serious, paradigm-shifting confrontation well. That problem is rooted in the components of your Orientation: your cultural, religious, genetic, moral and ethical beliefs, along with your dependence upon attachments and your confidence (or lack thereof) in your capabilities.

Here, I want to focus on the importance of that “orientation” both as stressed by Boyd and through my own observations reached via training and fighting.

The OODA Loop

Created by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, the Observe/Orient/Decide/Act Loop has been discussed, taught and twisted ad nauseam in the training industry. Some say it’s not a process in the moment, that it is an after-action function. Others say that it is as simple as “observing a threat, physically orienting yourself to it, deciding what to do, and then acting upon that decision.” Perhaps they have not read the same writings of Boyd that I have, or they are working exclusively from Boyd’s earliest writings. While the earlier writings do point toward a command and control tempo and after-action system, his later work broadened the subject and he clearly emphasized the individual fighter’s real-time experience with the loop. Below is a diagram from Boyd’s A Discourse which he completed in June of 1995, two years prior to his death. It is important to note that this is the only graphical representation of the OODA from Boyd himself. (1)

Orientation is the only pre-existing condition in the OODA loop

In Boyd’s view, the orientation component is made up of: cultural traditions, genetic heritage, new information, previous experience, and the process of the analysis and synthesis of it all. In other words, your orientation is your filter through which all observations and decisions are made. It completely influences the observe, decide and act cycles. Two things happen in an orientation cycle: is the application of your pre-existing paradigm to the problem at hand, and the synthesis of new information coming in in real-time. It is the filter through which all things are observed and all decisions are made.

I believe that it is true that you can not “speed up your brain”. One of the best explanations I have ever heard was during a lecture from John Chapman where he stated, basically, that we are born with whatever processor speed we have and we can’t change that. What we can do, is limit what we allow to use our processor resources up. By training the basic skills to an nearly auto level, we free up our processor to be able to take in information and make decisions quicker and more thoroughly. This was during an EAG Shoothouse course and it made perfect sense by days 3 and 4, as the shooters began to have the basics of breach, dig corner, collapse sector of fire down to a science, allowing for brain power to be used on observation and processing new information–critical elements for success in hostile CQB environments.

Boyd also wrote something very similar about speeding up the tempo of the OODA. He suggested that it was not necessarily about speeding up yourself to be faster in the OODA than your opponent. For him, it was more about denying certain patterns and images from entering the OODA, thereby allowing the tempo to move more quickly. This is exactly the same information that Chapman provided in his lecture: by eliminating the unnecessary thoughts, images and patterns from using your processor resources, you are clearer to focus on synthesizing the new information coming in.

The other part of this equation is confidence. Having confidence in one’s skill set, the fighter is able to choose the proper response (orientation pattern) to the threat. The result of this is that the fighter can maintain a constant effort of menacing the opponent with enough effective violence to constantly derail the opponent’s orientation to the situation. This will cause confusion, uncertainty, paralysis and eventually defeat. Orientation is thus broken up into two components: personal orientation to violence, and; fundamentals and confidence. As new information comes into your orientation, it effects those two components directly.

Personal Orientation to Violence

In order to be effective at responding to extreme violence, you must have an orientation that, at least to a minimum level, is permissive to participating in said violence. In other words, if you culturally just do not believe in committing violence on another living being, all the processor (brain) speed in the world will not help you defeat an attack. This is where the importance of cultural traditions and moral views comes into play in the observe, decide and act components of the loop. Through training, I personally stress that this problem can be solved by first establishing what I refer to as Clarity of Mission. Your personal mission will be dictated by who you are and what you need to accomplish. The missions of law enforcement, military and civilians are vastly different in very important ways.

If you are a civilian, your mission will be something like, “To make it home, with my family, every night, for the rest of my life.” That mission will identify a few critical elements: what you are willing to fight, and die, for; what you are allowed to do (laws, rules of engagement, use of force policy); and what your likely demands will look like in that mission. It is only through this information that you can put together an appropriate Training Protocol and begin to establish your orientation to the violence you may someday face. If you are not morally and ethically oriented toward performing violence, you will encounter very serious problems in dire self-defense situations.

Fundamentals and Confidence

Through proper training based on the likely outcomes of violent situations within your mission, you can begin to build a strong confidence in your ability to perform under the stresses of a deadly fight. We often talk about training the fundamentals until they are “automatic”. We need to repetitively train the fundamentals until we can perform them, repeatedly, without having to think about them at a conscious level. This is known as unconscious competence.

This is not accomplished by going as fast as you can. Have you ever taken a day and just went out specifically to practice slamming on your brakes in your car? Probably not. However, when the moment comes at 50mph and something goes bad in front of you, you will slam on your brakes with extreme unconscious competence and stop the vehicle (providing your situational awareness is in-tact and you’re not texting or reading this article: observe). The reason you can achieve the brake pedal movement flawlessly is NOT because you have practiced slamming the pedal at speed. It is because every week you have performed literally thousands of slow, correct repetitions of going from the gas pedal to the brake pedal. If you train your fighting skills in the same slow, correct and deliberate manner, you will find that when speed is needed, it will be there. Speed is a product of smooth and correct.

Improving the efficiency of your processor requires basic skills being ingrained enough to not have to use processor resources on them. Which allows you to then process information more quickly and thoroughly. This is the path to rapid and correct decision making in a fight. When you are not worrying about whether you can actually perform a movement or not, you are able to delegate those movements to the unconscious mind and allow your conscious mind to be fully engaged in the observance and decision making processes.

As the skills become trustworthy, you are able to go straight to processing your environment. This is a good step, but there’s more. The concept of maximizing your processor speed by not using resources thinking about the basics, allows you to not only solve one problem at a time, but to be able to flow through many problems, one after the other. It gets so good that you are able to set up subsequent moves with the ending of each solution. That is achieved after many, many hours of practice, force on force and mental training with positive mental imagery.

Positive mental imagery (orientation patterns in Boyd’s view) play a key role in keeping you on the quick end of the spectrum during a fight. Boyd wrote several times about denying certain mental images from entering your loop. We have all stepped up to perform at some point in time and failed. Whether at the range, or in a sport, we feared failure at the critical moment before performance. When you fear failure, you will picture yourself failing. This image will bog down your processing speed and prohibit you from performing well. Denying these images of failure, and other fear based anxieties, from entering into your observance and decision making processes will allow you to perform the fundamental skills necessary to prevail. It is truly difficult sometimes to imagine yourself doing something flawlessly correct, but it MUST be worked on.

Victory: Utilize Self-knowledge to Win

Sun Tzu clearly was a fan of disrupting the enemy mentally with any means necessary. The Art of War is all about using deception, strength, speed and constant pressure to literally shape the enemy’s perception of the world coming at him. Boyd wrote extensively about the importance of uncertainty, both in eliminating it in your perception (denying those orientation patterns), and in creating it for your opponent. Uncertainty is the cradle of fear, anxiety and doubt. This is arguably the most important and fascinating aspect of fighting: attacking your opponent in his mind.

When we have reconciled our own orientation to violence through mission clarity, rules of engagement, moral application, and the proper training of fundamental skills to the unconscious competent level, we have gained an extremely valuable insight into how the mind works. Your opponent’s mind works in very similar ways, regardless of his mission difference from your own. By defeating yourself, you have gained the insight necessary to defeat your opponent. What was difficult for you to overcome, mainly uncertainty, is also his most difficult enemy. By applying violence of action, overwhelming force, or at least repeatedly denying your opponent from achieving his planned goals, you begin to cultivate the perception of uncertainty in his mind.

THIS is the essence of getting inside of his OODA loop. Literally changing the opponent’s orientation to the situation at hand to the effect of growing uncertainty. There is no way in this article to discuss the endless sub-topics of fighting, violence and fight psychology. In fact, it’s a struggle to truncate this information while not getting too technical so as to bore or go over the head of the non-fighter. However, it is important to note that within the above laid information rests all of the concepts from striking for your opponent’s vulnerabilities, and making your weaknesses become strengths, all the way to dealing with the aftermath of a confrontation and surviving the legal, social, and psychological effects of deadly conflict.

There simply is so much more to training than going to the range and learning how to shoot; or going to the dojo and learning some hand-to-hand art.

My primary goal is to train people to fight, with firearms. Teaching shooting is easy, and somewhat boring. Fighting, however, is complex and takes years to cultivate. Especially if you lack that experiential shift of orientation. Which makes this task much more difficult in terms of teaching fighters. This is why I work overtime to expose as many of you as I can to the deeper thought processes that are involved on the other side of that paradigm shift.

Most people do not have the attention span or frame of reference for the long haul of learning and self-development in fighting. They come out for one or two shooting classes and think they are good to go. This is the definition of “you don’t know what you don’t know”. It’s very difficult to cultivate the thought process that is necessary for a non-fighter to realize that there is a vast of world of training that exists solely within the mind. Especially with the American Way of commercializing the “cool” stuff: technique, gear and lots of BANG action in the gym and on the range.

The big reward comes when the students who have never been in a confrontation recognize the genuine quality of the information provided by those who have. This enables them to realize that there is a big world inside the topic of violence, and no one has all of the answers. But the answers simply don’t come from people, who have never really been there, hypothesizing about how it all works. When they recognize those limitations within themselves, they begin to recognize them in sources of information about the subject, and learning ensues.

Take the concepts and roll them around in your head until you wake up one day and it’s there. The light will break through. Don’t let anything get your heart rate up, no matter how bad it looks. With clearly established Mission, legal boundaries, threat assessment, and repetitive training, eventually you can roll through the problem and just look for work. You will know what you can and can not do. You will also know what eats at the mind of your opponent.

(1) Chuck Spinney (who some exclusively credit the diagram to) directly credits Boyd with the diagram, explaining how the diagram was developed as a “joint effort in the late 1980’s” between Spinney, Richards and Boyd himself. Both Spinney and Richards, who were there when the diagram was made, directly refer to the diagram as Boyd’s depiction of his OODA loop. see Spinney’s citation here and Richards’ citation here


4 thoughts on “Fighting Mindset, Orientation and OODA – Varg Freeborn”

  1. Great article from a great instructor! It’s refreshing to see someone in this industry stress the importance of mindset and orientation in training.

  2. I love to see the perspective of someone with some hard real life experience on the things that we talk and teach about. Varg is an asset to our community and industry.

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