The Colour Code: Stages of Mental Awarness (Situational Awareness)

Posted: January 9, 2018 by urbantacticskravmaga in Krav Maga Principles
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In 1989, Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper, a former US Marine and creator of “the modern technique” of gun fighting, wrote a booked called Principles of Personal Defense and he devised a colour code to indicate the level of awareness a person has. Black was added later by the USMC after realizing what extreme 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 to avoid reaching code Black. A keyword often heard in Krav Maga is ” Situational Awareness” this as taught in class is usually referring to environmental awareness. Here you must ask yourself things like, are there multiple attackers? are their weapons? Do I have viable escape routes? etc… However, a big part of situational awareness is also your personal mental state and your ability to act or react appropriately. Enter, the Awareness Colour code. An easy guide to understanding your mental state at any given time.Principles of self defense.jpg

White – Unaware and Unprepared

This is you sitting relaxed on the couch after a large meal. Often students like to test an instructor, however even if a black belt is teaching but is at this 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 both mentally and physically. This is a state you should be in only in safe environments.

Yellow – Relaxed Alert (A)

Most animals such as cats or dogs spend most of the time in this state. To quote his 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 at a level of any 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 above 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. Here you can stay indefinitely with out any issues other than being more prepared to perceive, Analyze, Formulate and Act (See Action Vs. Reaction: Stages of Mental Processing for more) against identified threats.

Orange – Specific Alert (A) (D) (PE)

This is when you have identified a specific area or person of concern and your attention is focused. A nefarious looking person walking towards you. 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 – Condition Red is 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 both mentally and physically? This is why for us, as Krav Maga practitioners, we try to limit time spent here and end it as soon as possible.

Black – Catastrophic Breakdown (Non-Functional Freeze (NFF))

You have now experienced a complete catastrophic breakdown mentally, physically or both. The longer you spend at condition Red the more likely you are to experience this. An example of this would be shell shock. However, sometimes, 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 instead of entering “fight or flight,” simply shuts down. You can avoid this by training properly so that your brain and body know how to react appropriately. However, it is impossible to know who will experience this. 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 syndrome as a result and can get a proper debriefing both practically and emotionally.

* See The Stages of Self Defense post for more details on the below information

  • (A) – Avoidence
  • (D)- Diffusion
  • (PE) – Pre-Emptive
  • (RE) – Re-Active

**Topics under any principle category (EX. Krav Maga Principles) may be updated from time to time so always check in every few months to see if the posts have been updated.


  1. […] It’s already red (ish) because, you know, brain. Editors note: Possibly a reference to the awareness colour code? but we are never quite sure with Andrew.  A Yellow belt test is about mental toughness and […]

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