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Monday, June 6, 2005
Competition: The good, the bad and the ugly

By James A. Swan, Ph.D.
Author of "In Defense of Hunting"

The Great Outdoor Games are coming up soon. Bass and walleye circuits are in full swing. And clay target, single-action shooting and archery events are exploding all across the country.

Indeed, competition in hunting has become far more serious than the big-buck contest at the local sporting goods store.

Pro competition in outdoor sports is good for industry sales, pumps money into local economies, draws new people into the sports and provides inspiration.

A few people can now make a living fishing and hunting, and a lot more would like to. As outdoor sports become more competitive, we need to study the consequences of increasing competition to shortstop some of the ugly stuff that is making the news.

Personally, I've been a competitive person most of my life. I played football, golf and rugby in college. I still dabble in golf matches. And I love archery tournaments.

Today, as an actor, every time I go out on an audition I'm competing with some five to 50 other fellows for a part. You walk into a casting office and see a bunch of guys your age all dressed the same and after the same part. Everyone smiles and says, "Hello," like you're the best of friends — even though you might wish everyone else had avian flu.

Competitive situations bring out thoughts from the dark side. That's human. What you do with those thoughts is what determines what kind of competitor you are.

I've also learned more about competition from a decade of counseling a number of world-class pro and amateur athletes. Based on personal and professional experience, let me share some thoughts about competition.

Good competition

In 1975, I produced a large weeklong symposium at the University of Oregon on the ethical and psychological aspects of sports. The program included members of the Professional Track Association.

During the week, many psychologists and athletes spoke about the mental game of sports, including Lee Evans, who in those days was the fastest man in the world at 400 meters.

Evans said competing was like "the seasoning you put on a good meal to bring out the flavor so you can really enjoy yourself."

For Evans, a competitive event meant drawing on all his discipline, focus, knowledge, training and skills to make him perform at his best. And if he performed at his best, it was a high regardless of who won the meet, even though most of the time it was he.

That's good, healthy competition.

Bad competition

When I practiced as a counselor, one client was a member of the U.S. Olympic Team who was in the top-10 in his event in the world. On his first visit to see me he paced the room for the entire hour as he was too wired to sit down.

He admitted that he was hooked on amphetamines. He was so pumped that he had difficulty sleeping. But as his performance was still high, he kept on taking the pills.

He knew he was taking a huge risk, and so we focused on trying to get to the root of his need for chemicals. It finally emerged that he felt that people would not accept him if he was not winning.

We spent time on getting him to accept himself unconditionally, winner or not. At about that time, he got injured, which gave him a face-saving way out. Almost immediately, he went totally clean. I understand today he is a successful coach.

Sports psychology today has developed many tools to aid performance, but it does not always do enough on developing self-acceptance. That's one reason why drugs are such a problem in professional sports. When excessive competition destroys athletes, that's bad competition.

Ugly competition

When I played football at the University of Michigan, we were 10 to 12 players deep at every position. Competition was fierce. We used to joke about guys who couldn't beat you on the field, so they would trip you in the showers.

The same kind of "sportsmen" cut other people's fishing lines in crowded streams, shoot at ducks circling other people's decoys, trash other hunters' duck or deer blinds and claim they killed the deer that you mortally hit first … but that they stumbled on before you found it.

Under crowded conditions, just one selfish, ruthless person's actions can set off a chain reaction that lowers ethical standards in a whole group.

Aside from nasty competition that can occur on crowded fishing streams and on opening day of hunting season, there are an increasing number of stories about ugliness creeping into pro hunting and fishing.

Tournament fishermen stuffing weights into the bellies of fish to tilt the scales in their favor — or catching fish early and keeping them in nets until the day of the event — would make good shark chum, but hardly could be called "sportsmen."

Equally ugly are "hunter celebrities" who pen-raise deer to grow huge antlers to shoot on camera as if they were free-range animals; tranquilize semi-domesticated animals to be shot on camera; augment antlers of elk and deer to make the record books; hunt illegally over bait; and shoot game from airplanes and cars.

I'm told that bagging a world-record whitetail could mean $100,000 in endorsements; a world-record largemouth bass might well be worth much more. With stakes that high, the potential for competitors being motivated by greed, jealousy, egotism and a lust for power is growing.

Most state fish and game regulations already are way too lengthy. But somehow fishing and hunting agencies need to do what the PGA's rules of etiquette have done for golf: Make sure that as competition raises the stakes, it also brings out the best in sportsmen, not the worst.

A healthy sport should promote sportsmanship, as well as reward winners. Healthy competition can bring out the best in us. But ugly, selfish, greedy competition in the outdoors arena not only gives sportsmen a black eye, it is a Christmas gift for the anti-hunters.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.