Sparring in the Korean martial art of Soo Bahk Do is a give and take, a bit like a dance.
In the Moo Do style of sparring — specific to Soo Bahk Do — points are awarded not only for hits against an opponent, but also for blocks and other defensive moves performed, Tanner Armstrong explains.
“It’s all about giving and receiving and creating harmony,” he says. “It’s supposed to show what our art is all about.”
Armstrong, 19, has been training in Soo Bahk Do for the last 14 years at Sawbuck Do Jang in Whitefish, under the tutelage of owner Andrew Hamer.
The hard work put in on the mat has paid off too. Armstrong recently took second in Moo Do sparring and first in a team sparring competition at the 41st Moo Duk Kwan National Festival in Portland. The festival took place from July 25 to 27.
Competitors at the nationals are graded in four different events, including form demonstration, point sparring, Moo Do sparring and team sparring.
Armstrong’s group for the team sparring was made up of top Soo Bahk Do athletes in the western region. He was the sole Montana athlete in the group, the others being from Salt Lake City and Denver.
Last year Armstrong competed in the nationals in Houston and took third in point sparring, so he says topping that in both individual and team scoring was a huge relief this year.
“It was nice to have that moment of glory,” he says. “It was awesome competing with the group of guys that were on my sparring team, they were awesome. The people we went against were just as incredible.”
Armstrong says the plan for next year is to one-up his second place finish and go for gold in nationals, and he’s always looking to improve.
Hamer himself stumbled into the sport.
He says he started Soo Bahk Do 25 years ago in Whitefish after seeing an advertisement for martial arts that piqued his interest.
“I just saw a sign for martial arts when I was in my 30s and thought I’d give it a try,” Hamer says.
Then he took over the business several years later, and he’s been teaching at his current location since 2006.
The ceremonial aspect is what he loves about the sport, as formal bowing and recitations are part of any time on the mat, whether it’s practice or competitive sparring.
The bowing is respectful and sincere, he says, and combined with the unique nature of the Moo Do give-and-take sparring, it’s a sport of its own.
As for the actual, physical aspect of the sport, both Armstrong and Hamer pointed to the way they’ve been retrained to react.
“That’s one thing about martial arts, it’s training your body to go against its natural instincts. Humans have a tendency in that situation to tense up, so being able to relax in such a tense situation teaches your body in good ways to go against instinct,” Armstrong says.
“The street application of [that] is that if somebody challenges you, you’re not going to get frightened or do a knee-jerk reaction,” Hamer adds, “you’re going to get calm and that’ll give you the advantage in trying to defray the situation before you have to resort to self defense.”
An experienced martial artist already, Armstrong only has two years until he can test to become a master like Hamer as well, and he’s about to enter his second year as a student at Flathead Valley Community College, where he’s studying business management.
All that together, he’s hoping to follow in the footsteps of his own mentor.
“I would like to teach it one day. It’s something that I’m extremely passionate about and I can’t get enough of. So ideally in the future I’d like to take over this studio or open my own or something, I want to give back what I’ve been given,” he says. “I’ve made some of the best friends through doing this. It’s just a nice way of life.”