States of Awareness - The Cooper Color Codes and Self-Defense

"Ultimate victory is in avoiding the fight." - Sun Tzu

It is an unfortunate fact that most people stumble through life, blissfully unaware of the world around them. They remain preoccupied in their own thoughts of work, personal problems, how to get a date, or other mundane issues, with no thought to their immediate environment. By not paying attention to their surroundings, they place themselves in needless jeopardy.

To understand this phenomena, go take a seat in your neighborhood hospital emergency intake area one evening. Observe the unfortunates who come in for treatment and you will get an excellent illustration of this point. About 20% of the individuals are actually sick, ignore them. The remaining 80% are there because they did not pay attention to their environment. These will be the folks who walked off the loading dock, stepped off ladders twenty feet high, backed into running machinery, stepped into the path of a vehicle, or allowed a thug to walk right up to them unnoticed and hit them with a brick.

You can be be stupid, inattentive, and oblivious in your work environment day in and day out and get lucky, until one day the odds catch up with you and you are injured. The same principle applies to the streets. You can be stupid, inattentive and oblivious and get away with it until your path crosses the path of a criminal. The vast majority of criminals are opportunists, who only strike when presented with a viable, easy opportunity. Remove the opportunity and you remove the risk to yourself.

Utilizing awareness, risk reduction and avoidance techniques, you can achieve a large degree of control over your fate thru learning to observe your environment, continually evaluating it, and reacting appropriately to what you see or feel. This requires that you learn a concept known as Color Code developed by Colonel Jeff Cooper as a way to train soldiers in awareness and readiness to react & respond to combat conditions. The system is now taught to military and police organizations and is used in most handgun training classes.

The concepts behind Color Code Awareness translate well into self-defense training and should be a cornerstone to all effective training programs.

The Color Codes serve as a scale of readiness to allow you to match your level of awareness/readiness with the situation being presented. It allows you to shift gears, if you will, mentally by going from a state of being oblivious and unprepared to a condition of being ready to instantly do lethal violence if forced.

The Color Code System of Awareness

So what is the color code system of awareness? Simply, it is 5 states of readiness. They are:

  • White - unaware, not paying attention
  • Yellow - attentive, but relaxed
  • Orange - focus is directed, there is an immediate potential threat
  • Red - there is a definitive threat
  • Black - you are actively fighting
  • So why do we need the colors? Because, when faced with a life threatening attack by a criminal, as a typical normal person, we are faced with three very difficult challenges. They are:

  • Recognizing the presence of the predator in time;
  • Realizing, internalizing and accepting that THAT MAN, RIGHT THERE is about to kill you for reasons you do not understand, if you do not stop him; and
  • Overcoming your reluctance to do lethal violence to another fellow human being.
  • So let's take a look at these. First, you have to see the criminal and realize that he is a threat. Contrary to popular belief, criminals don't just "pop-out" of thin air. They typically walk right up to you unnoticed because most people don't pay attention to their surroundings. Learn to pay attention and you will see the warning signs earlier and be able to respond effectively.

    Secondly, it is very difficult for rational, normal, socialized, civilized human beings to fathom and acknowledge that they live right next to those who are NOT rational, normal, socialized, civilized human beings. These are individuals who just don't care about you or the suffering they cause. They care only about themselves. They may kill you for the contents of your wallet so they can buy another day's worth of drugs; they may rape you because they feel powerless, degraded and abused except while they are degrading or abusing someone else; they may kill you simply to move up in ranking in their street gang. Ultimately, it doesn't matter Why. You just need to understand that it DOES happen and your job is to not be the next victim.

    Thirdly, it is difficult to intentionally inflict pain and suffering on another human being knowing that you are turning a vertical, living, breathing individual into a horizontal piece of meat. As a society, we just don't go out and randomly beat the crap out of someone just because. Private citizens are reluctant to harm, even when justified. You must overcome this obstacle if your life is on the line. You will have to realize that there are times when lethal violence is not just excusable or justifiable or acceptable, but actually required.

    Luckily, by studying and practicing the Color Code system, you mentally prepare yourself to overcome all three of these problems. By learning to use the system and making it a part of your daily routine, you can begin to see an attack in its beginning stages and become both mentally and physically prepared to defend yourself when avoidance is not an option.

    The Colors

    White is the lowest level on the escalator. Here you are unaware, not alert and oblivious to your environment. This state is usually characterized as "daydreaming" or "preoccupied". People in white walk with their heads down as if watching their own feet. They do not notice the impending danger until it literally has them by the throat.

    These are the folks who operate their vehicles and do not notice the stop sign, or the vehicle in front of them. They are the ones after a vehicular incident you will say, "I didn't see him." How many times have you been driving somewhere and didn't remember how you got there?

    These are the same folks who will be victims of violent crime because the criminals target the inattentive, the complacent, the lazy, the distracted, the preoccupied. Why? Because the criminal is not looking for hard work. He wants to get to the victim, get what he wants, and get away all without being caught or hurt.

    So when is it acceptable to be in condition White? When you are in your home with the doors locked, the alarm system on and your dog at your feet. Now you can turn your mind off because you have plenty of early warning systems in place. If you leave your home, you now move to Condition Yellow.

    Yellow is a relaxed state of general alertness. You are not looking for anything or anyone in particular; you simply have your head up and eyes open. You are alert and aware of your surroundings. You are difficult to surprise, therefore, you are difficult to harm. You do not expect to be attacked today; you simply recognize the possibility.

    In Yellow, you would step to the far side of the sidewalk when passing a dark alley and look down it as you pass. In Yellow, you know where the people are around you. It enables you to spot trouble coming and either avoid it (where possible) or be ready for it (if you can't avoid it). If you can't avoid it, we move to Condition Orange.

    Orange is a heightened state of alertness with a specific target noted. The entire difference between Yellow and Orange is that there is a specific target for your attention. Your target is the person(s) who is doing whatever drew your attention to him. It might be the fact that he is wearing a wool jacket in the middle of summer. It might be that he is loitering by the doors to the mall. It might be that you have been in six different stores and have noticed this person in each one. His actions have caused you to take note of him. Therefore, you must assess him as a potential threat and prepare accordingly.

    How do you assess someone as a threat? You have to take into consideration all the clues being presented from his clothing, appearance, demeanor, actions, intuition, anything he may say to you. The single most important clue is body language. About 80% of human communication is through body language. Criminals / predators display subtle pre-aggresion indicators which are obvious once you learn to look for them.

    When shifting to Orange, you are focusing on the individual that drew your attention, but do not lose focus on your surroundings as you do not want to be blindsighted by any of his associates. Nine times out of ten, you will note after a few minutes of observation that there is a reason for his behavior and you will dismiss him. Once he is no longer a threat, you will de-escalate to Yellow.

    So what about the tenth? He is the predator, the criminal who would have gotten you if you weren't paying attention. Now that you are aware of him, you are in far less danger.

    As you assess this individual and you note things taht convince you he has evil intentions, you start to play the "What if...." game in your mind and begin formulating a basic plan. This is how we move ahead of the power curve, prepare and take control. If he does this, I will do this you begin the mental preparation vital to winning the conflict. With even a simple plan already in place, your physical reaction is both assured and immediate if the criminal presses his intentions. If, after assessing him, you believe he is an actual threat, you then escalate to Condition Red.

    In Red you are ready to fight! You may or may not actually be fighting, but you are MENTALLY PREPARED to fight. In many instances where you have gone to full Red, you will not actually physically do anything at all. The entire process of escalating from Yellow to Orange to Red then de-escalating right back down as the situation is resolved occurs without any actual physical activity on your part. The key is that you are mentally prepared with a game plan for a conflict and therefore could physically react if the situation demanded.

    When you have escalated to Red and believe a threat is real, you are waiting for a mental trigger which is a specific, pre-determined action on the part of the criminal that will result in an immediate, positive, aggressive, defensive reaction from you. This is how you achieve the speed necessary to win. By having a pre-made decision set up in your mind, you can physically move fast enough to deal with the problem. Without a trigger, you lose precious time in which you could have acted as you are trying to decide what to do after he starts his attack.

    Your main enemy is reaction time. If you are not aware of your surroundings and fail to see the suspicious character, he may overwhelm you before you can marshall an effective defense. The best fight is over before the loser fully understands what just happened. If you are caught in Condition White you will need five to six seconds to realize what is happening, get your wits about you and respond. The reality is you simply do not have that amount of time.

    The final Condition is Black. This is where you are physically engaged with the criminal. Your mental trigger has been tripped and you have responded. Your only option here is to move forward and inflict as much violence as needed to debilitate your attacker. There is no time for feeling sorry or scared, you simply react and trust your training.

    Mental Tricks

    There are a couple of mental tricks you can use in the early phases of your training to help you prepare for Condition Red or Black. Remember that one of the three problems mentioned will be actually "doing it", it being lethal force when required. To help with this, each morning when you get up remind yourself that "I may have to use my defensive training today." This plants in your subconscious mind, which drives 90% of your life, that there is a reason we train the way we do - we may actually need them to save lives. When you pick up on that potential threat and escalate to Condition Orange, tell yourself "I may have to seriously injure him today!" Trust me, if you have internalized that a specific person is an actual threat to your life, but that you have the means to stop him if need be, it becomes easier to mentally deal with the situation.


    Always remember that awareness and avoidance are the best self-defense strategies. Awareness of your environment, attacker rituals and your instinct comprise the majority of self-defense. Your firt line of self-defense against a violent situation is to avoid it. Trust your instincts and do not hesitate. If you cannot avoid the situation, then mentally prepare, have a plan and execute with full conviction and purpose.

    Ultimately, the more aware you are, the more you will prevent an attack. Practice using the Color Codes daily and integrate them into your training and daily living.

    For more information, check out Tom Givens' book Fighting Smarter at Range Master

    Angie M. Tarighi is the CEO & Founder of Women's Self-Defense Institute and has been teaching women's self-defense programs for over 20 years. She is a tireless advocate of self-reliance and responsibility, encouraging women to actively protect life through awareness and education.

    Angie holds the following certifications:

    •3rd Degree Black Belt & Certified Instructor in Kenpo •1st Degree Black Belt & Certified Instructor in Combat Hapkido •Certified Instructor in Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) •Certified instructor in International Police Defensive Tactics •Certified Workplace Violence Prevention Specialist •Certified Kid-Safe Network Agent •Certified Woman-Safe Network Agent •Professional Speaker •Published Author - •-"Practical Self Defense & Safety Tips for Today's Busy Female" •-"5 Simple Steps to Becoming a Reiki Master" Reiki Master

    Angie created Women's Self-Defense Institute to share information, resources, products, training and advice about safety and survival to women nationally & internationally coping with a dangerous world. Angie brings humor and real world examples to her training empowering women to tap into their own strengths and become their own best self-defense advocates.

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