Enjoy the Game

Can parents and students truly enjoy an athletic experience?
FCA’s Bill Stutz thinks so, and he wants to show you how.
By Jill Ewert

According to Sports Illustrated, 70% of kids drop out of sports by the age of 13. Why? Because adults, particularly parents, have turned games into negative experiences through their behavior, criticism and constant pressure.

FCA area rep Bill Stutz has held many roles in the sporting world. He’s been a player, a coach and an official. Now, as a sports parent, Stutz is doing what he can to reverse this trend. Prior to taking his current position with FCA, Stutz founded the organization Enjoy the Game®—an educational program designed to restore civility back to the sports environment.

And as the fall sports season began to heat up, Stutz sat down with STV editor Jill Ewert to talk about what parents and students can do to truly begin enjoying the games once more.

JE: How big of an issue is anger in sports today?

BS: We’re living in the kind of society where you worry about #1, and unfortunately it spills over into sports. Statistics from the National Alliance of Youth Sports show that 15-20% of youth sporting events involve some kind of behavior that requires a written special report. And they say it’s escalating.

JE: Why do you think that is?

BS: Primarily, there are three reasons why parents get out of control. One, they’re chasing that pot at the end of the rainbow. They think their kid is going to be the one to cash in, so they’re going to do whatever they can to make sure that happens.

The second reason is because they’re living vicariously through their kids. They fell short of that pot at the end of the rainbow, and they say, “That’s not going to happen to my kid! They’re going to make it!” And the third reason I think they do it is because they have an over-evaluation of their kid. They think their kid is a lot better than the kid really is.


In order to help you remember these principles, use the chart below as a “gut-check” for sporting events.

Important principles to remember when trying to ‘enjoy the game’...

• Coaches have to make difficult decisions. Trust them.

• Players aren’t perfect, so don’t expect them to be.

• Controversial calls will happen. Live with the calls of the officials.

• Remember that officials are real people.

• What are your actions and words towards officials teaching kids?

• Parents are often tempted to lose their tempers at games. Is your behavior caused by one of these issues?

• Are you chasing after the ‘pot of gold’ for your son or daughter?

• Are you living vicariously through your child?

• Do you have an over-evaluation of your child’s talent?

• Athletes, you can address issues with your parents in one of two ways:

• One-on-one discussion about their behavior.

• Team discussion with all parents and all players.

JE: Tell me how Enjoy the Game® first got started.

BS: When I started watching my son play with his friends—just the way they walked on and off the court—they weren’t having a lot of fun. I would look at the faces of their coaches, and I would see the stress and anxiety. And I looked up in the stands and saw the parents with their veins popping out from stress. And, man, those parents were embarrassing their kids with some of the things they were saying. So I did some research. I talked with some athletic directors and some administrators. I asked them “Am I too sensitive, or is this real?” They said, “It’s very real. It’s getting bad.” So we decided to do something about it.

JE: Give me an overview. What is the purpose of the organization?

BS: We want to restore civility back to youth sports. We want to raise a new generation of players, coaches and parents who really understand what their role is while they are at an event—to insure they control the things they can control, and therefore not only enjoy the game themselves, but make sure everybody around them enjoys the game as well.

JE: How do you do that?

BS: We do it with three phases: education, accountability and venue awareness. To me, the number one issue is education. Players, coaches and parents are being fed misinformation about the way they are supposed to behave at sporting events. We need to explain to them their roles as players, coaches and parents, so they can have a better understanding of how they’re supposed to act when they come to a game. And once you teach them what it is they should know, you can hold them accountable to that standard.

Within the education element there are three principles. The first one is that coaches have to make difficult decisions. I’ve never met a coach who intentionally made a bad decision that they hoped would be detrimental to their team. Every coach goes in with a plan. They’ve prepared it, they’ve strategized it, and now it’s time to call the game. And if all is going well we say, “Boy, this coach is awesome.” But as soon as it goes bad we say, “Why wasn’t my kid in there? How come he didn’t get to play?” But we have to learn to trust our coaches, because they have more invested in the game. Before the practice, they prepare the practice. They run the practices. They strategize the games.

Then when the game is over, they analyze it all, and they beat themselves up about things they could have done differently. The last thing they need is for a parent to call them, or a kid to go pouting to them about why they didn’t play. If they thought it would have helped, believe me, they would’ve had your kid in there.

We’ve got to trust our coach. Or in the 1% of the time when you really have a hard time trusting the coach, you have to find the right time and the right place to go talk him or her. But in those cases, the parents had better be ready to hear the rest of the story, because it’s probably something their kids aren’t telling them about the way they practice, about the way they listen, and so on.

The second principle is to understand that players aren’t perfect. When you go to a sporting event, things are going to happen. Your kid is going to strike out or miss a free-throw. It’s going to happen. And not only your kid, but their teammates. I use the example of Michael Jordan’s shooting percentage when he was in the NBA. He made 50.3% of his shots. That means half the time he shot, he missed. You can’t expect 13-yearolds to make every single shot. If you ask kids what is the worst part of their sporting event, they’ll tell you it’s the ride home with dad in the car. We call it the “PGA,” the post-game analysis. Parents have got to stay away from that. Instead, ask your kid three questions. Did you work hard? Did you have fun? Did you enjoy the game? And as they get older, you ask them also what they learned. And that’s all you’ve got to worry about.

"If you ask kids what is the worst part of their sporting event, they’ll tell you it’s the ride home with dad in the car."

Now the third principle— probably the hardest one—is that referees and officials must deal with controversy. Controversy exists in a sporting event whether an official is there or not. If you go play a pick-up game of basketball on any playground, I guarantee within the first 3-4 minutes there’s going to be an argument. So why do we think that just because the official is there that all of a sudden we can berate him or her? It doesn’t make any sense. Before parents even leave the house, they need to understand that when they go to the game, there’s going to be controversy. I’m so glad we have paid officials who are trained to make split-second decisions. We’re going to live with it if it goes our way, and we’re going to live with it if it doesn’t go our way. But we have to respect the call and move on.

And there are two things about this that really get people. The first is that every official is a real person. If that was your son or daughter or mother out there, would you want somebody treating them the way you treat officials? The second reason is to ask what you are teaching these young, impressionable kids who are watching you as an adult deal with authority figures. Whether it’s a teacher, you as their parent or a police officer, you’re telling him or her that it’s acceptable behavior to yell and scream at authority figures as long as you think you’re right. Now, the third overall element, like I said, is venue awareness. Wear something, look at something, have something on you that’s going to be a reminder. Maybe you put on a bracelet or wear a cross around your neck.

Obviously, preparation before the game is going to be the biggest tool that you have. Be prepared before you walk in to know that you’re walking into an environment that’s not going to be a rose garden. You can always ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” But on the other hand, you need to ask yourself, “What am I going to do?” We all know what Jesus would do. But you display His discipline when you ultimately ask yourself, “What am I going to do?”

For more from Bill Stutz, pictured here with his family, including how to know if students are ready for competition and what to do if you've already lost your cool with your child, go to www.enjoythegame.com

JE: Okay. Ideally then, how should a great sporting event feel for both the parents and the kids?

BS: They should feel that they just experienced an environment where the players were allowed to play, the coaches did their job in coaching, the officials officiated, and the spectators were a positive influence on the environment. If everybody would do their own job—no one crossing over and doing anybody else’s job—that would be the ideal environment for kids to play sports.

JE: What about the athletes? What are some things that students can do in response to a parent if they are putting too much pressure on them or are acting inappropriately?

BS: I think they need to sit down with their parents and ask them why they come to the games, and what is their motivation for supporting what the kid is involved with. There was a study done where 100 kids were asked why they played sports. They said to have fun and to be around their friends, to learn and compete, and #8 on the list was winning. At the same time their parents were asked why they had their kids involved in sports, and the parents #1 reason was winning. So until you have that conversation to ask, “Why do you think I’m involved?” the parents and kids are usually on different pages.

JE: I know that some kids would probably feel uncomfortable talking directly with their parents about it, so is there an alternative to one-on one confrontation?

BS: Sometimes the best way to handle it, especially with high schoolers, is in a group. Have the entire team bring in their parents and as a group say, “We want to let you know that we feel uncomfortable when you all start booing, etc., and there are a few of you who critique us on the way home.”

JE: That way nobody would feel on the spot.

BS: Exactly. And then at the end they can say, “With all these things we’ve just thrown out to you, you need to evaluate if you’re violating any of these, and if so, would you please stop because we’re not having any fun.” Now, I do want to say one thing about this whole situation. It’s a good metaphor that helps people really picture what goes on. At every sporting event, the match is going to get struck. Something controversial is going to happen. The real issue is how close that match gets to somebody’s wick and how fast that wick burns before the explosion happens. We have to blow the match out as quickly as possible.

You can’t avoid the kid making a mistake. You can’t avoid a missed call by an official. But when that match gets struck, how fast can we blow it out so that it doesn’t hit somebody’s wick and doesn’t burn, ultimately becoming an explosion? Because when the explosion happens, the people that get damaged the most are the kids.