In 1989, Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper, a former US Marine and creator of “the modern technique” of gun fighting, wrote Principles of Personal Defense, an easy to understand guide to training oneself to avoid dangerous conflict. Cooper had long been famous for teaching his “Mental Awareness Colour Code,” a system that employs the colours White, Yellow, Orange, and Red to indicate the level of awareness a person is experiencing. “Black” was added later by the USMC, after realizing what behaviours extreme psychological stress can cause. The awareness colour code is a simplified view of a person’s stress and awareness under stressful, potentially dangerous, situations. It is important to know, both in Krav Maga and in life, at what level you are at, in order to avoid reaching code Black. A key concept often heard in Krav Maga is “Situational Awareness,” this as usually taught in class as the awareness of physical surroundings. Here you must ask yourself things like; “are there multiple attackers?”, “are there weapons?”, “do I have viable escape routes?”, etc… However, a big part of situational awareness is also being aware of your personal mental state and your ability to act or react appropriately in a given situation. Enter, the Awareness Colour Code. An easy guide to understanding your mental state at any given time.
White – Unaware and Unprepared
This is you sitting relaxed on the couch after a large meal. Often students like to test an instructor with a surprise attack, even if a black belt is teaching, but is at White level any person could easily sucker punch even the most accomplished martial artist. This is a relaxed and unassuming state, you are not anticipating an attack and are relaxed in both a mental and physical sense. This is a state you should be in only when in safe environments.
Yellow – Relaxed Alert (A)
Most, animals such as cats or dogs, spend most of their time in this state. To quote Cooper’s book;
“Observe your cat. It is difficult to surprise him. Why? Naturally, his superior hearing is part of the answer, but not all of it. He moves well using his senses. He is not preoccupied with irrelevancies. He’s not thinking about his job, his image or his income taxes. He’s putting first things first, principally his physical security.”
– Jeff Cooper (2006). “Principles of Personal Defense: Revised Edition”, p.14, Paladin Press
In this stage, you are relaxed but still paying attention. It would be harder to surprise a person at this stage, but they are still not experiencing a level of stress, just simple awareness. It must be understood that being at Yellow, or relaxed alert, is not paranoia. If one were to mentally be at orange (below) or higher on the scale on a regular basis, identifying everything as a threat whether real or imaginary, then this would then be moving into paranoia. Remember, relaxed alert is just that, relaxed. You can stay here indefinitely with out any issues, other than being more prepared to perceive, Analyze, Formulate, and Act against identified threats (See Action Vs. Reaction: Stages of Mental Processing for more).
Orange – Specific Alert (A) (D) (PE)
This is the level of awareness you experience when you have identified a specific area or person of concern and your attention is now focused. A nefarious looking person is walking towards you, or perhaps you are a soldier on patrol assessing windows and doors. While Yellow is a stage that you can maintain indefinitely, Orange requires mental concentration. Consider working an 8 hour job; statistically most work is done before noon, as people still have the mental focus to be productive. The same goes for Orange; stay here for too long and you will begin to read the situation incorrectly!
Red – Fight! (PE) (RA)
Either the situation was unavoidable or you misread it, but you are now actively engaged in a fight or conflict. Imagine a car tachometer. How long can it stay red-lined until the engine blows? The same goes for a fight. How long can you maintain this level of intensity, both mentally and physically? This is why for us, as Krav Maga practitioners (Kravists), we try to limit time spent in Red, and end it as soon as possible.
Black – Catastrophic Breakdown (Non-Functional Freeze (NFF))
If you hit Black, you have experienced a complete, catastrophic breakdown; mentally, physically, or both. The longer you spend at condition Red the more likely you are to trip into Black. A persistent example of this would be “shell shock” (PTSD). However, some people go straight from White or Yellow to Black, this would be the “freeze” reaction, which is when your nervous system is overwhelmed and shuts down instead of entering “fight or flight.” You can avoid this by training properly, so that your brain and body know how to react appropriately to violent stress. However, it is impossible to know who will experience this before it happens; some people are prone to it and some people are not. It is also important to have proper mental decompression if you spend too much of your time at Orange or Red. If you experience this or anything like it, and have survived a violent confrontation, we advise that you seek professional counselling to ensure that you do not suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress as a result. Proper, professional debriefing, and possible therapy, will help, both practically and emotionally.
* See The Stages of Self-defence post for more details on the below information
- (A) – Avoidance
- (D) – Diffusion
- (PE) – Preemptive
- (RE) – Reactive
**Topics under any principle category (Eg. Krav Maga Principles) may be updated from time to time. So check-in every few months to see if the posts have been updated.