Combat Mindset: The Cooper Color Code

Self Defense is for me and my family a daily matter.  Self-defense isn’t necessarily a weapon, or a martial art, but like Survival, it’s a state of mind.  You have a brain, use it.  Think things out before they happen.  Consider constantly where you are, where you’re going, look around you, be aware.  We call it “Situational Awareness”.   It is said that the best way to win a fight is to avoid one.  Don’t be there when it happens.  Don’t travel in areas that are dangerous and if you must do so, do so without letting down your guard and go armed if you can.  If you’re knowingly going into a combat situation, with a combat mindset, it’s one thing.  Finding yourself in a combat situation while having been minding your own business and getting yourself into a combat mindset is wholly another.

When growing up I was the kid with the glasses, the “book worm”, the guy that the bullies singled out.  That went on through part of elementary school and into Junior High.  Dad was a Black Belt in karate and a former Marine.  He taught me various fighting techniques over the years including some karate, shooting, and even how to defend myself unarmed against a knife attack.  I grew up in Detroit for part of my life, so those lessons came in handy more than once.

But it wasn’t until my 9th grade of school that certain thinking patterns actually came into being for me.  Moving from one class room to another one afternoon through the crowded halls a group of kids had gathered around two would-be combatants.  One was a pitifully small boy with glasses (like me) who was pressed against a locker by a much larger boy, his forearm against the smaller kid’s throat, choking him.  The one-way conversation was something about “bringing twice as much lunch money tomorrow…”

I realized I could walk away, go on to class and ignore what I saw.  But I also knew the bully wasn’t going to stop with that kid and I was likely on his “list”.  I made a decision right then and there to either put a stop to it, or die trying.  I have no idea why.  I was scared of fighting, hated being hit and worse, I didn’t like getting blood let out of my body for no real reason.  To this day I’m honestly not sure why I did what I did next.  I stepped out of the crowd and tapped Mr. Bully (a full head taller than me, stronger and from rumors, a “karate expert”) on the shoulder.  It had the effect I wanted.  He let the little kid go and turned on me.

He reached for me saying “WHAT!?”

I stepped back and smiled.  When he took a swing at me I calmly blocked it and shoved him backward.  I was now committed.  He shouted “What do you want FOUR EYES!?”

I smiled and said simply, “You, me, 3 o’clock on outside the school on the playground.”

I turned around and walked away.  I was shaking, scared and about to piss my pants.  But the little kid was safe for the time being.  I had about an hour to contemplate my fate.

At the appointed time I walked to my locker, collected my books and walked out side to a huge crowd.  Kids all over the place parted as I walked over to the playground.  My mother was standing there at the car waiting for me and when I walked to the playground she started yelling at me.  I ignored her.  Mr. Bully was going through some kind of “warm up” I guess.  Practicing katas or something, I don’t know.  Dad never taught me all that stuff.  He showed me a few things and moved on.  I suppose what this clown was doing was trying to impress his little gang of boys hanging around him, or scare me.  It didn’t work.  I walked right toward him.  He went into some kind of a stance then charged me trying to do a round house kick to my head.  He missed.

I didn’t.  I swung my back pack full of books as hard as I could, connecting with the back of his head as he went past me.  He dropped like a sack of shit and lay there face down.

I walked off and got yelled at by my mother.

The next day I was called into the office.  Mr. Demirick was the Principle’s name.  He made me sit down and wait awhile.  Finally he closed the door and sat on the edge of his desk in front of me and said, “You’re going to be suspended for three days for fighting, since you started it.  Your opponent is in the hospital.  You gave him a concussion.  If you repeat this I’ll deny it.  Thanks for taking care of that asshole, but don’t gloat and don’t pretend it wasn’t an accident you got a lucky shot on him.  He is a pain in my ass, and a bully.  I doubt he will be back to school this year.  Get out, stay out of trouble and I’ll see that you get your homework for the next few days.”

That was that. I never once again found myself in such a situation because I became quite aware of my surroundings from that day forward.  I’ve almost never let down my guard since then, almost half a century ago.

Now, I didn’t tell the story to brag or be funny or especially not to convince you to “be the hero”.   I could have walked away and likely should have done so.  No, the rules for me are 1) Don’t be where there is a problem, 2) don’t GO where there looks like there’s going to be a problem, 3) Don’t start fights and 4) If someone else tries to start one walk away if I can.  But sometimes there comes a point where walking away and letting others handle the situation isn’t the right thing to do.

John Dean “Jeff” Cooper was a United States Marine and the creator of what is known as “the Modern Technique” of handgun shooting, and one of the 20th century’s foremost international experts on the use and history of small arms.  Mr. Cooper created a “color code” which he subsequently taught to Marines, police and civilians.  His – and my – idea of survival always involves the use of your brain.  Your brain is THE NUMBER ONE TOOL in your repertoire of items you can bring to hand.  A gun is good.  A knife is good.  A stick is better than nothing at all, and your hands, arms, legs and muscles are to be relied on when nothing else can be.  But, without your brain, without thinking and without cognizant awareness you are little more than an animal fighting for survival in a dangerous situation.

I believe most people reading this will have a grasp on what happens when your adrenalin begins to pump.  But let’s summarize:

Adrenaline is a chemical (actually a hormone) produced by the two adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys (ad – renal, on – kidney). These glands secrete adrenaline directly into the blood stream when people are exposed to something that they see as potentially dangerous.

Because adrenaline has to be carried by the blood to all the different parts of the body, it takes a second or two before people will feel its effects. I will explain below how this slight delay can be important in how you react to danger.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, and is associated with a diversion of blood away from certain areas of your brain and internal organs and into your muscles. As a result, adrenaline has the ability to increase speed and strength. It also decreases how much people feel pain. A large amount of adrenaline released into your system all at once causes what is often called an adrenaline dump, rush, or surge. All of these effects are designed to prepare your body to either run away or to fight.  Your thinking may be impaired in fact by an Adrenaline dump.  Some people experience feelings akin to terror.  Others experience a kind of euphoria.

Adrenaline can make you feel energized, or it can make you feel shaky, weak or sick to your stomach. Sometimes all of these feelings come at the same time, which can be confusing.  Results of an adrenaline surge might also include feeling as though time has slowed down, tunnel vision, where you only see what is in front of you and not what is around you, a sensation of your mind wandering or floating, making it hard to concentrate.  You can experience decreased coordination and difficulty in thinking clearly.

This isn’t a treatise on how to handle an adrenaline dump, there are plenty of other texts on the subject.  In fact, I’m far from an expert on the subject and am merely providing this as a method for your consideration.

Professor Cooper introduced his “color code” not to give you an indication of how much danger was around you or apparent, but rather to help you to think through a difficult situation – your state of mind.  In fact, his teaching explains that this color code relates to the degree of peril you are willing to do something about and which allows you to move from one level of mindset to another to enable you to properly handle a given situation.  Now, whether it becomes a fight or flight situation is more easily handled by a reasonable thinking person than it would be by some who isn’t thinking; ie experiencing a massive adrenaline dump and not concentrating on the subject at hand.

Does it work?  To some degree for me.  But since the time I learned about this color code and thought it through over the past few years, I’ve not found myself in a situation that would require fight or flight.  Thank goodness.  But I have noted that I tend to be much more aware of my surroundings, what I am doing, who is present and I pay a lot more attention to strangers near by than I used to.  I’ve also noted situations where it was apparent to me (but no one else with me) that two people were apparently passive covert messages about passersby.  Would-be thieves or robbers?  Probably.

I know my wife uses this technique and is aware of people around her.  She and her Girl Scouts successfully avoided pick pockets on a train in Paris once, because they were aware of the eye contact the others were making, signalling about “unawares girls”.  The ladies alerted the entire train car by making noise and pointing out the two or three offenders who rapidly vacated the train when it stopped.

The color code, as originally introduced by Jeff Cooper, had nothing to do with tactical situations or alertness levels, but rather with one’s state of mind.  As taught by Cooper, it relates to the degree of peril you are willing to do something about and which allows you to move from one level of mindset to another to enable you to properly handle a given situation.  Cooper did not claim to have invented anything in particular with the color code, but he was apparently the first to use it as an indication of mental state.

The USMC uses a condition Black, although it was not originally part of Cooper’s Color Code. I would equate Condition Black with a state of mind that disallows all thinking processes and the individual has gone into a kind of “berzerker rage” and might be in some cases why anger leads to murders… but neither am I a psychologist or lawyer, so it’s a guess for me.

Condition Black: Catastrophic breakdown of mental and physical performance. Usually over 175 heartbeats per minute, increased heart rate becomes counter productive. May have stopped thinking correctly. This can happen when going from Condition White or Yellow immediately to Condition Red.

In short, the Color Code helps you “think” in a fight. As the level of danger increases, your willingness to take certain actions increases. If you ever do go to Condition Red, the decision to use lethal force has already been made (your “mental trigger” has been tripped).

Colonel Cooper’s States of Readiness

Condition White: You are essentially unaware of anything going on around you. Maybe you’re fatigued, distracted by some worry, or had a bit too much wine with dinner. Regardless of the excuse, you are not ready — for anything.

Condition Yellow: You are alert but calm and relaxed, scanning your surroundings for potential threats. You know who’s in front of you, to your sides, and behind you. You don’t think anyone will make a hostile move, but you are mentally ready in case something untoward develops. Yellow should be the “default” condition for every martial artist.

Condition Orange: You recognize that something is out of the ordinary, and that the chances for violence are increasing. At this stage you note the positions of all potentially hostile individuals around you, as well as any weapons they may be able to use, in their hands or within their reach. You develop a plan for dealing with the potential hostiles, including identification of escape routes. In addition to being mentally ready, you are physically ready as well.

Condition Red: You are engaged in combat. Someone is assaulting you and you are reacting to the attack and defending yourself. You are taking immediate and decisive action to stop your opponent, or evade and get help.

One thought on “Combat Mindset: The Cooper Color Code

  1. “I will tell you this categorically, preparing the mind is as essential as any possible skill you could ever learn or any weapon held in your hand. Your mindset is the dispenser and finisher of the battle you are engaged. When you are thrust into the combat vortex and are at the tip of the spear, your mindset determines whether you win or die!” ~ Jack C. Perritt, STRIKE – CMC

    Liked by 1 person

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