First of all: this is the second in a series of blog posts covering the concept of the OODA loop. I really recommend that you read the first post now if you have not done so already – this post will be near-impossible to understand otherwise.
Any sufficiently difficult concept will become easier to understand if good examples are used, which is what this post is going to be about in the case of the OODA loop. In order to simplify things, I will choose examples from a variety of sports and competitive activities other than fencing. That might seem counterintuitive given that this is a fencing blog, but there is a reason: in fencing, all parts of the OODA loop are nontrivially difficult, and multiple things happen at the same time. That means that it is difficult to make a simple explanation based on fencing by simply focusing on some aspect to the exclusion of others.
That said, let us consider how the OODA loop manifests itself in various sports and activities:
- 100 meter running: In this sport, the athlete listens to the starter gun (Observe), starts running (Orient and Decide), and runs as fast as he can (Act). There is not much complexity here. The runner knows what kind of sensory input (an audible signal) to wait for, and he has a good idea of when it will happen (shortly after the on your mark and get set commands). There will, hopefully, be no other noise to confuse the observation process. The Orient phase is very simple here, since the environment is highly regulated and designed to be equal for all competitors. There are real either-or tradeoffs in the decision as to when to start running, earlier is always better as long as it is after the signal. Once one starts running, there are no real tactical or strategic decisions, for several reasons. Firstly, the distance is so short that there is no point in pacing oneself and conserve energy for later – anyone who is a serious 100 meter runner has enough stamina for it to be possible to run at full exertion throughout the entire race. Secondly, the other competitors cannot physically affect your race, since everyone must stay in their own lanes. Thirdly, the entire race consists of a series of repetitions of the same basic motion (the running stride), so there is no question of when to stop doing one thing and start doing something else. So, this is a sport in which Observe and Act are the by far major parts, and Orient&Decide are essentially a minor followup on Observe. As a further simplification, there is not much in the way of a feedback loop in this sport – one only starts once, and then one does the same thing for a short time.
- Chess: Here, the competitor makes note of what opening gambits (and other traits) the opponent prefers, in order to prevent him from playing to his strengths. That is the pre-match Observe stage. It entails a lot of data, but there is not much time pressure and it can be farmed out to seconds (at the world championship level), so it is not the most difficult part of the game. When the game starts, the competitor sees which moves his opponent makes, which is the in-game Observe stage. In a normal game (not blind chess) this is trivially simple. At higher levels, both players will have a ordered list of preferred chess openings to play, so the Orient part is to realize which chess openings are still possible given the position on the board, and the Decide part is to choose the highest remaining chess opening on that preference chart. Once that decision has been made, the next step is to move the correct piece, which is the Act step in chess. In comparison to all other steps, Act is the simplest in chess. Once out of the chess opening lists, the players enter the middle game phase of the game, in which there still are many pieces on the board, a large number of possible moves at any stage, and the players cannot rely on chess opening memorization. Generally, there are so many possible moves so that it is impossible to consider all of them to the necessary depth, so the player must simplify his decisions by quicking noting which of those possible moves are useless, either because they do not further any visible goal (taking material, developing pieces, protecting the king, hamper opposition movement), or that they can be refuted by some possible move by the opponent in his next move which causes the position of the player to obviously deteriorate, This pruning of options belongs to the Orient stage, and once the player has pruned and calculated as much as is possible, there are in many cases still more than one move that is not unreasonable, and the player must use his feelings, guided by rules of thumb, to perform the Decide stage. It also fairly often happens that only a simple calculation shows that there is only one legal or non-bad move, so that the Decide stage becomes trivial. This is called a forced move, and examples of when it happens is is when there is only one move that prevents a checkmate, or a move that captures your own queen for nothing in return. Once the Decide stage is over, the trivially easy Act of moving the appropriate piece is done. Your opponent then does the same, and then the whole thing repeats itself with each move. So, there is an inner loop in where the player is orienting and deciding, and an outer loop that pauses after each Act. Together, the outer OODA loops of both players exhibit an alternating series. As pieces are taken and exchanged, the number of possible moves at each stage goes down, and once both players have a sufficiently small about of material left on the board, the game enters the endgame phase. Once the number of remaining pieces is small enough, it becomes theoretically possible to prove that the position is won for one player unless he makes unforced mistakes, or that the game will end in a draw provided that both players avoid unforced mistakes. This is the reason for why the majority of chess games are not played to checkmate – both players see the obvious outcome in advance, and either agree to a draw or the player with the inferior position concedes instead of dragging out the game in a theoretically hopeless position. One special aspect of the OODA loop in chess is the zugzwang – the position on the board is so that the player that is to move must move, but ever legal move will make his position weaker. It is obvious very advantageous if one can get the opponent in zugzwang. The zugzwang is a consequence of two rules in chess: a player can never decline to move, and only one player moves at any one time. Neither of those reasons are in play for fencing. All in all, this means that Orient and Decide are the difficult parts of chess, while Observe and Act are comparatively much easier. Also, chess has nested feedback loops. Both of those features make chess diametrically opposite to the 100 meter running event.
This blog post is already at over 1200 words. I had intended to analyze quite a few sports with regard to the OODA loop in one blog post, but in the interest of reading ease I will revisit those sports in following blog posts.