DaLawn Parrish had rarely raised his voice at his players all night, but late in the fourth quarter, his team up 35 points, he saw an opportunity to teach a lesson.
His star running back, Dadrian Carter-Williams, had celebrated after he strolled in for his third touchdown of the game, dancing with a teammate as he returned to the sideline. Parrish approached to within five feet and started yelling.
“Next time, that’s going to be a flag and you’re going to be out of the game! What you just did!”
Carter-Williams nodded before walking off, but Parrish could only wonder if he had gotten through to him. He would have been more animated in a moment like this a decade ago, when he began to build the Wise High School football team into one of Maryland’s best. Sometimes his former players will come by practices or games and tell him he has gone soft.
“No,” he tells them. “Time has changed and is different.”
The world is different from when Parrish started coaching in the early 2000s. As society undergoes a cultural shift on appropriate behavior and discipline — with an increased awareness of mental health issues and the impact emotional abuse can have on young athletes — it also has sparked a debate over what the lines are in coaching. Not all stakeholders agree on where tough love ends and verbal abuse begins.
Some coaches, such as Parrish, understand that the win-at-all-costs mentality no longer has a place in youth sports but believe that some form of “hard coaching” is necessary to get the most out of their athletes and to prepare them for life beyond the playing field.
“What is considered macho is not macho anymore,” Parrish said. “You have to evolve with it, if this is what you want to do. And I’m also going to tell you — some things I agree with, and some things I don’t agree with. I don’t believe in excessive abuse, but there is a fine line between what is excessive and what is necessary.”
Scandals of sexual and physical abuse have rocked the youth sports landscape in recent years, and athletes and parents have increasingly felt empowered to call out predatory and criminal behavior. But alongside those egregious situations, there have been dozens of verbal abuse claims against coaches reported in the media across the country, some of which have been less than clear-cut. School boards and local athletic associations have often been left to determine whether a coach should be disciplined while balancing conflicting opinions on what separates valid motivational tactics from damaging behavior.
The discussion has reached sports’ collegiate and professional levels — most recently in the National Women’s Soccer League, where players have accused the league of ignoring reports of sexual harassment, coercion and emotional abuse by coaches. In many cases, players have said, the normalization of that behavior began at the youth sports level, where athletes often don’t realize that they’re being verbally and emotionally abused.
“We create environments and systems where kids want to please their coach so much, so badly, they’re doing everything they can to get that approval,” said Kristen Dieffenbach, the director at the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Science at West Virginia University. “And for young girls in those very high-performance settings, that can be a lot to carry unless someone is helping manage that.”
Coaches, including those with years and even decades of experience, are acknowledging the need to alter their approach to conform both with societal changes and a new generation of athletes. But even though everyone seems to agree that the lines are different now, there isn’t a consensus as to where they have been redrawn.
“There were things that were done years ago that were unacceptable but were accepted,” said Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player who is now an ESPN analyst. “They’re not accepted anymore. And coaches that have not changed with the times are going to have problems.”
‘I’m going to make you tough’
Parrish’s father was a drill sergeant in the Army Reserve — he sometimes compares certain situations in football to war — but it’s his mother’s side he describes as being particularly tough. He learned football the hard way growing up, getting pummeled by older kids on neighborhood lawns.
By the time he put the pads on for the first time in grade school, his coaches often forced him and his teammates to do hundreds of up-downs and sprints, and practices would include “bull in the ring.” The drill would require one player to stand in the middle of the field, with teammates surrounding him. Then the coach would call their numbers and send them sprinting from any direction to tackle him. Today, the drill probably would get a coach fired.
Parrish’s upbringing informs how he motivates his players, and in the early days of his Wise tenure, he was more aggressive. Practices were longer and more physical. His language was more animated. A burly former college safety with a booming voice, Parrish cut an imposing figure — and was equally known as a screamer and as a measured teacher.
“I’ve told my players before, when I was younger, I think I was building a culture,” Parrish said. “I was trying to break kids in the sense of — I’m going to make you tough, and the strong survive.”
Tameka Jackson’s son played on Wise’s first state championship team in 2012, and she remains involved with the team as a liaison with parents. She said she has seen Parrish evolve his coaching style over the years.
“When my son first started playing, [Parrish] was tough,” she said. “. . . As time went on, and even just talking to him over the years, I was like: ‘You have to learn how to be more sensitive . . . because each year, you’re dealing with a different generation of kids. And every kid cannot take that tough talk.’ ”
“But it’s football!” was Parrish’s response, Jackson said, but around 2016, she began to notice him “scaling back” and “adjusting to the times.” Parrish has always believed it is essential to teach his players how “not to break,” mentally or physically. That often requires giving players the unvarnished truth about their performance and can include motivating kids by putting them on the bench or throwing them into pressure-packed game situations. But even all of that has taken on a new meaning. Some kids can handle more than others.
“I have to watch how I say it,” Parrish said.
For Parrish, it didn’t always feel this complicated. The only coach Wise has known since it opened its doors in the early 2000s, he has led the school to four of the past five Maryland state championships and five in 14 years. Yet despite that sustained success and enjoying support from the majority of his players’ parents, coaching has felt harder by the year, he said.
“It’s more of an adjustment than a conflict,” said Myles Wolfolk, a former Wise player for Parrish who now plays at Bowie State. “Definitely for guys like him, who are more old-school . . . things were a little different. Coach might throw something at you back then, who knows?
“Coaches definitely have to tread lightly a little bit,” Wolfolk continued. “However, I don’t think he’s going to switch up his style of coaching. He’s not to the point where he’s disrespecting anybody or making somebody feel bad about themselves.”
Tamika Dudley, the girls’ basketball coach at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, acknowledges undergoing a coaching transition of her own, yelling at her players less and instead asking them to hold one another accountable.
“My kids from the past now are like: ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re so soft on them. We would’ve done this; we would’ve done that,’ ” she said.
But she describes her biggest change as involving parents more, which she feels is essential to being a firm coach in today’s culture. She now holds meetings with parents and players before each season.
“In the past, it was like, ‘I am the coach; do what I say,’ ” she said. “. . . [Now], when we are tough on their kids, they’re okay with that, because they trust us and we have their kids’ best interest at heart.”
‘That’s what has been lost’
John Fiore, a longtime football coach in Montclair, N.J., says he has adapted his coaching style to better fit the world around him. He has scaled back his cursing and sarcasm, he said, and will ask kids for permission to put his hands on them before showing them how to block during drills — something he didn’t do five years ago.
But Fiore believes there are core tenets of coaching that should be preserved. He has watched coaches in his state leave the profession in droves, some of whom have been accused of abuse under anti-bullying laws enacted nine years ago, and he has pushed to introduce a bill that would extend coaches’ contracts past one year. But it’s the kids who are ultimately affected most if they are not coached hard, Fiore said.
“How many of us have had that boss, the alpha, hard-nosed and isn’t the nicest when we make a mistake? How are they going to handle that person? Well, if they had a tough coach, they’re going to know how to handle that person,” Fiore said. “If everyone treated them like the world is perfect and didn’t demand the best out of them and demand discipline and demand accountability and get on them when they make mistakes, then they’re not going to know how to react when it happens. And it will happen in all of our lives.”
Most kids don’t mind discipline and accountability if they know it is coming from “a place of love,” Fiore added.
“The biggest thing that I think sports brings: It’s one of the last bastions of consequence that teenagers have,” Fiore said. “If you don’t go to practice, if you’re late for practice, if you make mistakes, you’re not going to start. You’re not going to play. . . . I think that’s what has been lost. This whole generation has been going through, depending on where you live, whether you’re allowed to discipline any longer. And let’s face it: A lot of people think of hard coaching as discipline.”
Jason Sacks, the chief development officer for the Positive Coaching Alliance, said his nonprofit organization — which addresses toxic coaching at the youth level and has an advisory board that includes Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr and former U.S. soccer star Julie Foudy — is not attempting to remove discipline or standards from coaching. Instead, the organization conducts seminars to educate parents and coaches on how to best reach today’s youth athletes.
“What we’ve seen the last couple of years is, getting in the face of one of your players, grabbing them by the face mask, blowing them up, cursing them out — the research shows kids aren’t reacting to that,” Sacks said. “That’s not how that’s going to motivate them. If anything, it’s shutting them down.”
Athletes, no matter the age, will be motivated by fear, but only temporarily and at a great mental health cost, Dieffenbach, the West Virginia University professor, said. Athletes motivated by positive perspectives, on the other hand, have more positive outcomes on the field and in life afterward.
“That doesn’t mean you’re always soft on athletes and everything is happy feel-good,” Dieffenbach said. “But just like in teaching . . . you set expectations, [and] you help them meet them. And when they’re not met, there have to be consequences for behavior.”
Erin Chastain, the first-year women’s soccer coach at the University of Minnesota, was recruiting recently when she heard a youth coach scream at a player, “You’re never going to get a scholarship playing like that!” Chastain remembers thinking, Did that just come out of the coach’s mouth?
“There’s a huge learning curve in what is appropriate and how we can get the most out of our athletes in a positive, constructive way,” Chastain said. “You can still be critical, absolutely. But you just have to be very aware of the message you’re delivering and how you’re delivering it.”
‘There ain’t no rules to it’
During halftime of a road game in early October, Parrish led his team to an adjacent baseball field for a pep talk. His team was down 7-0 to its rival, C.H. Flowers. Wise had not lost a league game in six years.
“I ain’t going to lie to you — now they believe. It’s a war now!” he screamed. “You have to be physical! You have to play as hard as you’ve ever played! Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir!” the team responded together, and the rest of the afternoon, he showed just how hard he could coach. When one of his players missed an assignment near the goal line, he turned to his sideline and roared, “Get me someone who wants to be physical!” and pulled the player from the game.
He showed how much he could build the young man up, too, by talking with him afterward and by celebrating with his players after they held off a frantic rally by Flowers, which pulled within a point in the closing seconds and went for the two-point conversion to win.
Wise stopped the attempt to hold on for a 20-19 victory. On the other side of the stadium, some parents yelled at the Flowers coaching staff for the decision to go for the win. The public address announcer made an impromptu plea — “Let’s respect our coaches” — and across the field, Parrish could relate. In a profession that continues to demand more and more, he has perhaps never felt more vulnerable.
“I’ve had parents that question coaching style. I’ve had parents question training time. I’ve had parents question just about anything and everything,” he said. “Everybody is not going to be happy. If you believe that, you might as well not even coach. But if you have a general love for it and you still love it, then you stay in it.”
So Parrish keeps coming back — no matter how different it feels each year or how conflicted he gets over how best to reach the players he wants to help succeed.
“There ain’t no rules to it,” he said. “One day, what you do is you’re building character. And the next day, it becomes excessive. And that’s what is difficult. Because let’s face it: To win is to not break. . . . How do you do that? You can only do that by pushing.”