The OODA Loop: Enhancing Reaction Timing and Decision-Making in Hockey Athletes

In the world of professional sport, athletes require the ability to process information and make a critical decision within milliseconds. A gifted athlete possesses the ability to navigate an environment of controlled chaos and set the tempo by proactively utilizing action to dictate the time and space that the opponent uses.

Without question, athletes must be able to read and react as quickly as possible. True elite athletes possess the ability to be adaptable in all situations and use lightning quick reactive capabilities to ensure that the opponent does not gain a positional advantage.

Astute critical thinking and decision-making abilities are vital skills in athletics as they are within many other occupations, such as the military. Renowned United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd devised the process known as the OODA Loop, an acronym for “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.” While originally formulated to provide combat fighter pilots with a strategic gain over the adversary, it is a learning process that is also highly effective for the enhancement of cognitive development in athletes. Research conducted by Laming (1968) suggests that average human reaction timing is approximately 220 milliseconds in duration.

Observe: Athletes are finely tuned instruments of precision, capable of absorbing and disseminating through many elements of information co-occurring simultaneously. In the context of high-performance hockey, for example, a defenseman possesses the capacity to observe the tactical position of all five opponents, where the puck is located within the play, the opposing player most likely to advance on the attack, etc. There is no doubt that the most gifted athletes in the world utilize excellent peripheral vision, spatial reasoning, and situational awareness skills to process considerable amounts of information instantaneously.

Orient: Once the skater has processed information from their surroundings, and observes an imminent tactical threat in the form of an opponent advancing, the skater can orient their body positioning to remain in a state of strategic defensive advantage. This is a poignant example of how foundational technical corrective skating exercises performed through consistent, precise repetition provide the basis by which to activate efficient neuro-muscular motor patterns rapidly.

Decide: The athlete is now in a position to establish neural and cognitive blueprinting, by envisioning every perceived scenario and outcome. Will the opponent attempt to gain the middle ground, and move toward the middle of the ice for a well-placed shot? Or will the opponent attempt to stall the defenceman, and power wide toward to the outside to gain room for a shot or rebound? Patience, one of the intangible critical characteristics of athleticism, is extremely vital in this phase. A further study conducted by Hick (1952) confirmed that reaction times could be trained and subsequently increased by up to 58% when an individual was presented with two choice options in response to a stimulus, as opposed to a single option. Possessing bilateral symmetry and economy of motion in skating technique allows a player to adapt to all tactical situations on the ice, increasing their capability to react rapidly to every perceived positional scenario.

Act: The will to act, based upon all of the precursors noted above, will guide the athlete to committing to a decision. It is poignant to appreciate how the OODA Loop process, in essence, continues forever, as the skater's cognitive processes record data based on the outcome of their decision-making. As the loop continues perpetually throughout the course of every shift, every period, every game, and every season – theoretically the athlete's decision-making abilities become more refined, more precise, and more successful.

This is a prime example of why reactive training is a staple component of the Apex Skating Coaching Paradigm and Methodology. Refining skating biomechanics with precision at slow tempos and within the context of a controlled environment with professional instruction from a Skating Movement Specialist is essential in creating a strong foundation of quality repetition, but ultimately those capabilities must be challenged in a read-and-react environment for true efficacy.