A “game plan” is a strategy for attaining a goal. This common English idiom comes from American football, in which a coach might prepare a particular strategy for a game, based on the respective strengths and weaknesses of the coach's team and the opposing team. Although this term originated in the field of sports, it has become widely used in everyday speech.
The English language is rife with sports idioms, which are phrases that first applied to sports but grew over time to have wider idiomatic meanings. Although it is difficult to determine exactly when this phrase was coined, it likely can be traced to American football in the early 1940s. As with many idiomatic expressions, it was initially applied in a more literal sense. When football players met with their coaches before a game, they planned their course of action to help them win. Logically, they called this action plan a “game plan.”
Soon after its appearance in sports, the phrase gained broad idiomatic usage. Instead of just being used in reference to winning a game, it could be used in reference to a wide range of goals. The phrase became an idiom because the word “game” within the phrase no longer strictly meant an encounter between rival sports teams but could mean any type of activity that is necessary to achieve a goal.
The expression’s origin in sports leads it to be especially common in competitive endeavors. This phrase is frequently used in business meetings and politics. To open a meeting about a new product launch, a businessperson might ask, “What’s the game plan?” His or her colleagues would then reply with their strategy for a successful product launch.
The term also is used in non-competitive settings, such as in informal everyday speech. For example, a child who helping his or her parent cook dinner might ask, “What’s the game plan?” The parent would then let the child know what to do to make a successful dinner.
In these examples, the overarching goal itself is not explicitly stated. When “game plan” is used, it is very common to express the strategy without directly stating the ultimate goal of the strategy, because the goal usually can be understood automatically. For example, a political campaign manager might say, “Our game plan is to court the union vote.” Most listeners would already know that a campaign manager's main goal would be for his or her candidate to win the election, so it would be unnecessary to state, “Our game plan for winning the election is to court the union vote.”