Why I like NFL Training Camp, but Love Camp Wellstone

NFL Preseason is in full effect and e-mails from friends are now circulating about playing some pick-up football to celebrate the coming season. As a former mediocre high school football player, I must confess that I hate playing pick-up football games. Sure, the camaraderie is fun with friends, but pick-up football misses the core elements of what makes football a great game to play. In pick-up games, plays are called ad-hoc (or not at all), players make up their own roles, routes and responsibilities and the quarterback rarely ensures that his or her team is exploiting the other team’s soft spots. Without practice, everybody has limited experience playing together and lack a common language to operate under. What I call a post route, somebody else calls “sort of a number 7.” Finally, there’s no overarching game plan because there’s no head coach or any coaching of any kind.

At its core, football is about a very intentional and well-planned team committed to a unified goal with each individual having complete clarity on what they need to contribute in order to achieve victory together. Adjustments are constantly made for sure, but any good football team identifies its own personnel, its own strengths and weaknesses as well as its opponent’s, and then forms a game plan to exploit mismatches and address areas of concern. I enjoy watching HBO’s Hard Knocks, a fascinating sports documentary that each summer follows one specific NFL team’s training camp week by week. You cannot avoid appreciating the level of planning, preparation, practice and hard work that NFL teams put in leading up to each season. Plays are repeated over and over until executed with perfect precision. Coaches implement skills-building sessions, watch film to seize on learning moments, and along with player captains, aggressively model a winning organizational culture. Mentoring from older players is not only intentional, but essential. In a sport where individual players face enormous personal risks, they stress the values of commitment, sacrifice, and a laser-like focus on the group goal.  Winning teams do all of this; losing teams don’t.

Last weekend, I attended Camp Wellstone, the equivalent of grassroots activist training camp. As the only lawyer on a staff surrounded by community organizers, it’s important for me to understand how my teammates approach their work. I wanted to gain new skills and way of thinking so we can work together more effectively and make progress for the community. From the very first session, our dynamic trainers laid out the two and a half day road map and then jumped into inspiring, encouraging and guiding all of us workshop participants through the fundamentals of grassroots organizing. Every concept we learned was followed-up with an exercise to put those lessons into practice. They didn’t just talk about a winning culture; they modeled it every minute of the weekend by showing all attendees incredible respect and promoting progressive values in their words and actions. I learned so much from them and from other participants, so this football loving-lawyer-turned-newbie-organizer wanted to share just a few of those lessons:

  1. Talk less, listen more – You can’t understand how to connect with others when you’re too busy talking. As a lawyer, this is challenge because I love the sound of my own voice (which is really quite lovely). Bad listeners or people too busy to invest in relationships will always have difficulty building sustainable movements for change.
  2.   To make lasting change, you need electoral politics, grassroots organizing, and policy – Without the other two, policy boils down to an idea that may or may not actually solve the problems of the local community and is unlikely to succeed without voters who support it.
  3.   The “Don’t be Jay Cutler” Rule – Be humble, admit you make mistakes and can learn from others (yes, I’m a Bears fan).   We cannot get better at making progress unless we admit that we don’t know everything.
  4.   Paul Wellstone was an awesome human being – Watching his bio video gave me goose bumps. Wellstone saw potential leaders in every person and devoted his life to trying to unlock that potential.

Senator Paul Wellstone, simply one of a kind.

From left to right, my Wellstone trainers Adriana Barboza, Nicola Wells Chin, and Aliya Rahman.

Practicing my inside pass rush versus Michael Aguhar (AFIRE) and Peter Limthongviratn (IFP Alum).

Andy Kang, Advancing Justice—Chicago Legal Director