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Healthy Competition

"You did not shoot that bird. I did! He was dropping by the time your gun went off!"

My friend, Jeff, fired those words at me after I yelled, "I got him! I got him!"

We were both at fault. I wanted credit for the kill. So did Jeff. To this day, neither of us knows who actually dropped that rooster. Perhaps it was both of us. It doesn't matter.

What does matter is that Jeff and I drove home from Springview to Lincoln -- a five-hour trip -- without speaking 10 words to each other. Competition ruined our weekend hunt and temporarily ended our friendship.

That sad day occurred in December 1993. Since then, I've watched far too many battle scars form from hunting competition among friends. I know of two childhood buddies who won't speak to each today because of tense moments afield. Two other sportsmen yelled at each other, nearly exchanging blows, because one took a long archery shot at a turkey that was walking toward the other's ground blind. Just a month ago, I went through a competitive moment with a friend who later admitted jealousy had caused his hurtful behavior. These are tragic experiences, evidence that competition can send a friendship flying south in a hurry.

From left to right, RB Drickey, Jeff Brehm, Scott Westlund, Thom Ludtke and Zeke Pipher form the 2008 "Turkey Creek Team." This group of friends has been chasing spring turkeys together in Spencer, Neb., for more than a decade. Whenever someone bags a bird, the whole team celebrates.

However, not all competition is destructive. Competitiveness among friends can add exhilaration to a hunting trip. My hunting buddies, five guys I consider my closest friends, tease each other when we miss shots at deer. We rub it in when one turkey's beard is a bit longer than another's. We consistently look for ways to pick on each other for silly, insignificant things. I'll never forget the moment when four of us teased one friend, Scott, mercilessly when he pulled an egg out of a turkey he'd shot that morning.


Earlier, at the time of the kill, Scott jumped onto the radio to tell us he'd arrowed a "jake with not much color." I ribbed Scott hard when we realized he'd shot a hen. I called him the "big, bad hen slayer" that day. The Lord is perfect in his retribution. I accidentally shot a "lightly colored jake" the next day, making our annual turkey outing a "two-egg" affair. You can imagine how the "big, bad hen slayer" let me have it.

Competition is an odd thing. It can add a positive dynamic to an outing. But it can so easily cross that delicate line and end up damaging relationships. George Leonard said it well, "Competition is the spice of sports; but if you make spice the whole meal, you'll get sick."

Spicy, But Not Too Hot!
For the sake of this discussion, let me suggest there are two kinds of competition. Both can be healthy when carried out in the appropriate context.

I'll label the first type of competition "head-to-head combat." This is typically seen when a team or individual strives to defeat an opponent. In this type of competition, one person or team emerges victorious, the other defeated. Head-to-head competition is appropriate for many sports. I certainly want my Nebraska Cornhuskers to do head-to-head combat (and win!) when they take the field against the Oklahoma Sooners. Head-to-head combat is a good and necessary type of competition.

Just not amongst hunting buddies.

Mike Toukan (left) and Zeke Pipher pose with the 157-inch buck Pipher shot on the opening day of Nebraska's 2007 archery season. Toukan didn't just help Pipher drag the buck out the woods; he genuinely celebrated his friend's bowhunting success!

Jeff and I each took a head-to-head attitude with us on our pheasant hunt. We tallied the birds to see who shot the most. We argued about who got to position themselves in the best spots. We secretly wanted to out hunt the other person. We eventually went toe-to-toe on one lousy bird, which as I described, didn't turn out so well. Hunting with friends is never the place for head-to-head combat. But the second type of competition is perfect for hunting buddies.

The second type of competition could be called "one wins, we all win" competition. This type usually involves people who know each other well and genuinely love and respect one another. Deep down, each member of a team wants the other members to do well, even as they compete with one another. This type of competition maintains the philosophy that when one wins, everyone wins.

The competition aspect of the one wins, we all win attitude occurs as we challenge each other to achieve higher levels of proficiency. We're not competing against each other, but as one person does well, it challenges the others to do well too. A couple years ago, one of the guys in our group shot two enormous bucks, both scoring over 170 inches. Because of this friend's success, I've set my sights on shooting a buck that big. My desire isn't to "one up" this friend or take anything away from his success. But when he achieved this tremendous goal, it inspired the rest of our group to reach for it as well.

One wins, we all win competition also encourages friends to celebrate each other's successes. In this sense, I have no problem admitting that I like to impress my five hunting buddies. I can also honestly admit I carry an equal desire to be impressed by them. When my friend shot those enormous bucks, I almost did back flips. His face beamed like a little kid's as he showed me those racks. He thoroughly enjoyed impressing me; I thoroughly enjoyed being impressed by him. When he won, I won!

From left, Jeff Brehm, Zeke Pipher and Scott Westlund pose with a buck Piper shot in 2006, just a week before Brehm was deployed to Iraq for a 21-month tour. Sharing your success in the field with special friends makes the memories that much sweeter.


wins, we all win competition allows for teasing, ribbing and "talking smack" as friends. But at the end of the day, we cheer everyone's success, no matter how great or small. The focus of this type of competition is unity, not one-upmanship or victory.

Ego = The Death of Friendship
Bringing head-to-head competition into a one wins, we all win situation is hurtful. Likewise, bringing a one wins, we all win attitude onto a football field or tennis court is inappropriate. Both errors hurt the integrity of a particular sport.

But there's one way that any sport or hobby can be radically spoiled. This has to do with the tiny little word "ego." Ego, or the desire to see just you, or primarily you, achieve success, always damages relationships and sport.

Ego has a weird, twisted way of tainting competition, whether you're on a team that's trying to defeat an opponent or you're heading afield with your bowhunting buddies. If your goal is primarily to make your name great, or one-up your teammates, you'll ruin the moment for others. We've all brushed up against these types of people.

I recently received a phone call from a sportsman that left a sick, sour taste in my mouth.

Mark McHargue (left) and his son Jordan head out for an afternoon hunt. A little family competition can be a good thing.

All he wanted to do was celebrate himself. He told me story after story of incredible shots he's made on elk. He talked about the numerous species he's hunted. He even listed, state-by-state, all the places he's big-game hunted. I occasionally tried to interject a story of my own to try and make things mutual. He wasn't interested. He was only interested in his story. I wasn't impressed.

Ego, and the sense of self-promotion it brings, has no place in friendships or hunting partnerships. The sportsman on the phone suggested we hunt together sometime. I politely declined. I've got five close friends whom I know go bonkers when I do well, just as I go nuts for them when they succeed. Life's too short to spend with people who have me-optic vision.

Swallow Your Pride
Jeff and I were both 23 when we had our falling out. We were roommates in Lincoln, Neb., in a house with four other guys. Shortly after our trip, the house disbanded and we all went different directions in life. I lost touch with Jeff for two years. Then one day, at a Christian bookstore, I walked around to the end of an aisle and we met face-to-face.

Both our eyes lit up. We realized how much we'd missed our friendship. Right there in the bookstore, we asked forgiveness for the silly competitiveness we'd carried a few years back. Our friendship was immediately restored. I was a groomsman in his wedding a few months later, and then he played that role for me a couple years later. To this day, Jeff's closer than a brother. Even our wives and kids are best friends.

Scott Westlund pulled a turkey egg from his "Jake with light coloring" a few years back. The smile on his face is riddled with embarrassment, and his hunting buddies made sure he didn't forget his mistake.

Jeff and I go turkey hunting every spring with my father-in-law, RB, and two other close friends, Scott and Thom. Next year will be our twelfth year chasing gobblers around the Niobrara River valley. Each year, about a month before the season, all five of us begin sending taunting e-mails. For some reason, we've made the brand of bow we shoot the primary fodder for teasing. The guys who shoot Bowtech (Jeff and I) tease the guys who shoot Mathews (Scott and Thom).

The Mathews guys tease us back. The poor, lone hunter who shoots a Hoyt (RB), well, he gets teased hard by all four of us. These competitive, taunting e-mails are playful and make us look forward to our upcoming hunt. They also celebrate our friendship and love for one another. (Incidentally, I'm pretty sure Bowtech is in the lead on bird count, but that's not important.)

The truth is, no matter who shoots what at the end of our turkey trip, everyone celebrates everyone. Nobody does a victory dance unless everyone is in the mood to dance with him. Nobody rubs in his success or complains about going home empty handed or lets ego get the better of him. We hunt as a team, tease each other as a team and finish successfully as a team.

Let me challenge you to take a "one wins, we all win" competitive attitude to the field this year. Tease your buddies. Spur them on. Celebrate their success and encourage them to celebrate yours. Let the right kind of competition sweeten your times afield.

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