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11 Sports Idioms

6 min read
2 December 2020
student playing football outside

Sport plays an important role in many cultures, and can bring people together as well as cause tension. It also has an effect on the way people speak. Throughout the years, many sports idioms have appeared in the English language.

Here are some of the most common sports idioms in everyday use. See if you can use any of them in conversation. If you use them already, do you know where the phrases come from?


The ball is in your court

Meaning: the responsibility is with that person to make a decision

Origin: Tennis, or other court-based games. The ‘court’ is the area you play a tennis match in, so when the ball is in the opponent’s court, it is their turn to play.

Example: “I sent Walter the details, so the ball is in his court.”


Down to the wire

Meaning: When the outcome of something is only decided at the very end

Origin: Horse racing. Before cameras, there was a wire placed along the finish line at horse races, to help see which horse crossed the line first.

Example: “Tonight’s pub quiz could go right down to the wire.”
Music can be a great way to learn vocabulary: The Wire by HAIM uses the repeated phrase: "when it came down to the wire".

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Drop the ball

Meaning: To make a mistake or blunder

Origin: In baseball and basketball, the ball must not hit the ground or that is the end of the play.

Example: “I can’t believe John forgot to send me the phone number for the client. He really dropped the ball.”


Get the ball rolling

Meaning: To begin something or get a process started

Origin: In a sport like football, the game has started once the ball is in motion.

Example: “We need to start planning our next meeting, who would like to get the ball rolling?”


Home straight (UK)/ Home stretch (US)

Meaning: the final part to a task or event

Origin: Horse racing. The final part of a race course is called the home straight, which leads to the finish line.

Example“I’ve been practicing for my English test for weeks, but I’m finally on the home straight.”


Jump the gun

Meaning: to start too quickly

Origin: Racing. The phrase probably originates from foot-racing in athletics, where races are started by the firing of a gun. If you jump the gun, you begin running before the race has started.

Example: “We are still waiting for confirmation, so don’t jump the gun on this.”


Out of left field

Meaning: To take you by surprise or come out of nowhere

Origin: This comes from baseball. The left fielder is the person who has the farthest distance to throw the ball in order to get to first base before the runner.

Example: “Pablo’s negative reaction to Liza’s new haircut was completely out of left field."



Par for the course

Meaning: the expected result

Origin: Golf. A ‘par’ is the expected number of strokes you need to get the ball in the hole. If the hole is a ‘par 4’, you are expected to need 4 shots to complete it.

Example: “I can’t believe my coffee cost £4.” “That’s about par for the course.”


Plain sailing

Meaning:  smooth and easy progress

Origin: Sailing, obviously. When the water is calm and there are no complications, a boat has plain sailing.

Example: “My English class today was plain sailing.”


student playing tennis with teacher
"The ball's in your court now"


Saved by the bell

Meaning: to escape something bad happening at the last moment

Origin: Boxing. In boxing, a bell is rung at the end of each round. If a boxer is knocked down, the referee counts to ten. If they cannot get up, they lose the contest. If the bell rings while the count is going on, the boxer has until the start of the next round to recover. Hence they are saved by the bell.

Example: “I was in trouble with my girlfriend, but then she got a phone call.” “Saved by the bell!”


Throw in the towel

Meaning: to give up

Origin: Boxing. If a boxer is losing badly and wants to stop the fight, their team will literally throw a towel into the boxing ring.

Example: “Bruce was losing 4-0 on FIFA, so he threw in the towel.”


Want to know more idioms to develop your vocabulary? Check out our latest idiom blogs below.


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