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What campaigners could learn from American Football

I’m fairly sure the overlap between fans of NFL and those interested in campaigning is fairly small –  in fact, I can think of only one or two readers of this blog who might fall into both categories.

But get beyond the padding and helmets, the endless breaks for TV adverts, and that you can be ‘World Champions’ of league where all of the teams are in just one country – what you’ll find is that American Football is one of the ultimate games of strategy.

So as it was the Superbowl earlier in the month and it got me thinking about if American Football is the perfect sport to teach campaigners a few lessons in strategy.

  1. You’re either playing offense or defense – Every American Football team is made up of two specific units – a team for offense, who are charged with scoring points, and a team for defense, who task is to stop the other team from scoring.
    Too often as campaigners, we want to be playing offense – moving our issue or topic forward, gaining ground and making progress – it’s a natural mindset and it’s often the right approach. But sometimes you need to play defense – those are the times when it’s about holding the line and making sure that progress that has been gained in the past is kept waiting for a more favorable opportunity to come along. Good campaigners need to be able to operate in offense and defense.
  2. The ground game and the air game – in America Football, there are two ways you can get the ball down the pitch – you can run it on the ground or throw it in the air. Running with it can end up being about just making gains of a few meters or so, where throwing it can open up the game with it traveling 20 to 40 yards towards the end zone.
    And similarly in campaigning, sometimes the campaign strategist has to make a choice about the approach – do you look to run the ball, perhaps just take a few steps forward – secure incremental change or go for something else by trying to open up more space for your issue. Judging what approach is the most appropriate one is important.
  3. Sometimes you need to go for a ‘Hail Mary’ play? The Hail Mary route in American Football refers to any very long forward pass made in desperation with only a small chance of success – it’s a play that’s rarely used but is spectacular when it does succeed, and it’s the same in campaigning, sometimes you need to do something so unexpected that shouldn’t succeed, but might just.
  4. Everyone has a clear role  – there are lots of players on an NFL team – but you can only have 11 on the pitch at any one time, but each player has a specific positional role to play – a pre-assigned task that they’re expected to deliver. And while the Quarterback – the player who directs the offense, might get most of the plaudits, they can’t succeed without the other players around them. Everyone is vital to success. In the same way, in campaigning, being clear on the specific role each individual plays is important – see here for some helpful typology of the different roles required in a campaign.
  5. Studying the opposition – American Football has been described as ‘chess on a playing field’ with the Head Coach and his team of assistants spending hours before games reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and designing plays that will allow them to win. The opposition is meticulously studied and during the game the coaches identifying and calling plays based on what they believe gives them the best chance of winning. As campaigners, how much time do we spend reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents, and develop strategies and approaches that anticipate the approach they’ll take?
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