A Guide To The Many, Many Sports Idioms Of English

Even if you’ve spoken English your whole life, you might be surprised by the origins of these phrases.
A baseball player at bat representing sports idioms

Understanding English requires a surprisingly large knowledge of sports. Even people who aren’t into athletics at all will use phrases like “throw in the towel” and “play hardball.” If you’re learning English, you’ll have to learn quite a few of these phrases to understand what anyone is talking about. While every language has its idioms, English sports idioms are in a league of their own.

Fortunately, we’re here to break down some of the sports idioms you’re most likely to hear, going sport by sport. This isn’t all of them, of course, but this should give you a good head start. You’ll be hitting these sports idioms out of the park in no time.

General Sports Idioms

out of your league — When someone or something is considered too good or too difficult for you.

in the big leagues — To be at a more serious or more important level.

keep your eye on the ball, get on the ball — To pay attention to what’s important. It’s not entirely clear which sport it comes from, but it’s certainly one that involves a sport. If you’re “on the ball,” that means you’re doing something well.

drop the ball — To fail at doing your part or holding up your end of a bargain.

kick off — To start something, used as either a noun (“Don’t miss the project kick-off”) or a verb (“We’re kicking off the event”). In sports, the kick off starts the game as teams struggle for possession of the ball.

wildcard — Something or someone unpredictable. In sports, a person or team makes it to the finals without meeting the usual qualifications (it varies by sport).

watch from the sidelines — To see what’s going on, but not be involved.

Association Football (Soccer) Idioms

own goal — To do something against one’s own interests, usually accidentally. In soccer, it refers to when a player accidentally knocks the ball into their own net.

move the goalposts — To change someone’s goal after they’ve started, often making it more difficult to complete a task.

American Football Idioms

Hail Mary — A plan, often made out of desperation, that likely won’t work (and it’ll be a miracle if it does). While this has clear religious connotations, it was popularized because of the “Hail Mary” passes in football, which are far passes that are unlikely to be caught.

Monday morning quarterback — American football is usually played on Sunday, so calling someone a Monday morning quarterback means they’re commenting on something after it already happened.

run interference — To deal with problems as they arise so someone else doesn’t have to. In football, a strategy where a player blocks the other team.

Baseball Idioms

to hit a homerun, to knock it out of the park, to hit a grand slam — To do something very successfully.

strike out — To do something unsuccessfully.

go to bat for — To support someone else.

softball — A question that is pretty easy to answer, and may be asked to allow answerers to make themselves look good.

take a rain check — To postpone. Since the early days of baseball, games could be postponed because of the weather. The attendees would be given a “rain check” so that they could come back and see the postponed game.

on deck — Up next. In baseball, it refers to the player who is next up at bat.

pinch hitter — Someone who will substitute for someone else. A pinch hitter in baseball is someone who substitutes for another batter. A pinch hitter in regular life can take over for someone else in any situation, and it’s often implied that they have some skill that would make them especially useful.

in the ballpark, a ballpark figure — A rough estimate, an approximation. This phrase has a dark origin. During the 1950s, American scientists were testing missiles. They used a target the size of a baseball field to indicate that a missile is “close enough” to where it was supposed to go.

play ball — To work together on something.

play hardball — To act aggressively in a negotiation.

throw a curveball — To do something unexpected.

out of left field, out in left field — Some event or idea that is eccentric or unusual, or that seems to come out of nowhere. This phrase originally referred to when a player surprised the runner by throwing the ball from left field to get an out. 

step up to the plate — To take on some sort of responsibility.

batting a thousand — To perform perfectly. If a baseball player were “batting a thousand,” that means they’re getting a hit every time they go up to the plate. This never actually happens in baseball (at least not for a long time), but it can apply to any situation when someone is doing well in regular life.

whole new ball game — When a team scores and ties up the game, announcers might say it’s “a whole new ball game” because the odds of either team winning are evened out. In regular life, a whole new ball game can refer to any situation where something has happened to drastically change the circumstances.

inside baseball — The technical details of something, usually involving specialized jargon or knowledge that outsiders wouldn’t understand. It originally referred to discussions of baseball strategies, but can now refer to anything that requires strategy, from politics to theater.

a swing and a miss — A situation when someone tries but fails.

in your wheelhouse — Within a person’s interests or knowledge. While the word “wheelhouse” originally referred to the room where a captain would steer a ship, baseball announcers started using it to refer to the area over home plate where a batter is able to hit the ball best. This area differs from batter to batter.

extra innings — When something goes on longer than expected, referring to how baseball games are extended beyond the ninth inning if the score is tied.

Basketball Idioms

slam dunk — Generally, something that is very good (“This idea is a slam dunk”).

buzzer beater — Something accomplished at the last possible moment.  In basketball, it’s when the ball gets through the net right before the buzzer announces the end of the quarter.

on the rebound — In basketball, when the ball bounces off the hoop and a player from the same team shoots again and scores. In regular life, it most often refers to when someone has just been broken up with and they immediately jump into another (unfulfilling) relationship. It’s not entirely clear whether the non-sports definition is specifically inspired by basketball, but we’re including it in this list of sports idioms anyway because it definitely has to do with a ball.

full-court press — In basketball, a very aggressive defense. In regular life, it’s any strategy that is very defensive.

swish — The sound the ball makes when it goes through the net without hitting the rim at all. Outside of basketball, someone might say “swish” when they’ve just done something well.

Boxing Idioms

the blow-by-blow — A detailed summary, originally referring to someone describing every hit landed in a boxing match. 

lightweight — Someone who is not capable of handling much of something (like alcohol). Also, something that is trivial. The phrase is taken from the weight system in boxing, which separates boxers by how much they weigh.

heavyweight — Something or someone of above average weight or importance.

beat to the punch — To do something before someone else has the chance to do it.

a low blow, hitting below the belt — To attack someone or something unfairly. In boxing, it’s considered particularly poor form to punch someone below their waist (for somewhat man-centric reasons).

sucker punch — To hit someone when they’re distracted.

take it on the chin —  There are two opposing ways this sports idiom can be used, depending on the country you’re in. The American sense is to be horribly damaged by something. The British sense is to endure something terrible (which is certainly more British).

throw in the towel — To give up.

throw one’s hat in the ring — To take up a challenge. It refers to a 19th-century practice of people actually throwing their hats in a boxing ring to declare one’s interest in fighting.

take a dive — To lose on purpose. Boxing, like all sports, has a history of being rigged from time to time.

the gloves are off — To fight very aggressively. Boxers these days wear those big, cushy gloves to avoid seriously injuring each other, so taking them off means that the stakes are raised. You might also hear this in ice hockey.

on the ropes — Close to losing or in trouble, referring to a boxer who might be pushed up against the ropes on the edge of the boxing ring.

come out swinging — To immediately start attacking someone or something, either verbally or physically.

down for the count — Describes someone who has been defeated. When someone is knocked down in boxing, the referee will count to give them a chance to get back up. If they’re down for the count, that means they don’t get back up.

roll with the punches — To keep moving through adversity. When you roll your body with punches, that means you move away to absorb some of the strength of the hit.

Golf Idioms 

par for the course — About average. In golf, “par” is the number of strokes that are expected on each hole. If you get par on every hole, your score is technically zero. If you go below par, that means you’re doing better than expected.

not up to par — Not meeting expectations.

hole in one — When something is done perfectly on the first attempt. Referring to when a golfer gets a ball in the hole on their first stroke.

mulligan — A do-over. While replays aren’t allowed in professional golf, many golfers will use them from time to time. It’s not clear where the name comes from, but it might have been the name of a golfer.

to tee up — To prepare something, as a golfer prepares to swing by putting their ball on the tee.

golf clap — Polite, quiet applause. Golf isn’t a particularly loud sport.

make the cut — To meet the minimum expectations to continue playing. This sports idiom comes from golf, where players who didn’t perform well enough were cut from tournaments.

Horse Racing Idioms

win by a nose — To succeed at something, just barely. Referring to winning a horse race by literally the length of a horse’s nose.

to give free rein — To allow someone to do whatever they want.

to rein in — To limit what someone or something is able to do.

first past the post — The first person or thing to pass the finish line.

home stretch — The last part of a journey, project, race or anything else

just under the wire — When something is finished with no time to spare. This refers to the old practice of putting a wire across the finish line on a race track. 

to get a head start — To start ahead of everyone else. While horse racing should start with all of the horses in the same position, sometimes a horse’s head would be a little bit more forward than the others, giving them a “head start.”

Tennis Idioms

the ball’s in your court — When it’s someone’s responsibility to make the next move. In tennis, it means that it’s the other person’s turn to hit the ball.

game, set and match — Basically, “it’s over.” In tennis, the umpire will declare the winner by using this phrase followed by the winner’s name.

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