/ Aron Thode

Sixteen Sports Idioms with Meanings and Examples

Some topics make for natural questions, and for me, it’s a matter of phrasing, using the right vocabulary for learners, and trying to be interesting and/or occasionally provocative. Other topics are harder to form into natural questions without sounding contrived.

There are many sports idioms in English that I would have liked to include in the Sports Idiom Conversation Questions, but unfortunately they don’t lend themselves to the discussion format. Hopefully the ones I’ve chosen make for good conversations. It will help to pre-teach the idioms and to be on hand to help students both as they interpret the questions’ meanings and try to answer.

Read on to see the idioms from the question set, with meanings and examples:

(Hit) below the belt - to act unfairly or to verbally attack in a personal way

I thought Simon was hitting below the belt by bringing up John’s marital problems.

(Hit) below the belt comes from boxing. A similar expression is "a low blow."

On the ball - to be alert and highly competent

He’ll probably win that case - his lawyer is really on the ball.

This expression is thought to come from baseball. It’s a shorter version of "to keep one’s eye on the ball."

Par for the course - what is normal or to be expected

That’s par for the course. Every new employee has to go through the same security check.

This comes from golf, where par is the normal number of hits a good golfer takes to sink a ball on a hole.

Pull one’s punches - to be less harsh or hold back one’s true opinion or criticism

I had the feeling she was pulling her punches when she evaluated our presentation.

This comes from boxing. Frequently, it’s used in the negative, as in ‘to not pull one’s punches’ or ‘to pull no punches’.

Stump - to confuse someone or ask them a question which is difficult to answer

For the first time, the professor was really stumped by a student’s question.

This usage of stump comes from cricket.

Roll with the punches - to deal with challenges and setbacks well

So many things went wrong during our presentation, but Joyo just rolled with the punches.

Another one from boxing. When boxers roll with punches, they move away from them to lessen their impact.

Call an audible - to improvise on the spur of the moment

The traffic was terrible, so I called an audible, and we walked to a local restaurant instead.

This expression comes from American football, where the quarterback sometimes changes a play on the spot in response to the situation.

Down to the wire - near the deadline, without time to spare

I submitted my essay at exactly 3:59pm. It really came down to the wire.

This comes from horse racing. The wire is the finish line, and when a race comes down to the wire, it is a very close finish.

Drop the ball - to make a mistake, often one that lets other down

The CEO asked Marco a basic question, but he totally dropped the ball. He’s pretty disappointed in himself.

In various sports, dropping the ball is a significant error.

A side view of two brown horses racing. The closer horse is behind by a nose.

Win by a nose - to win by a very small amount

Vlad won the election by a nose, but a win’s a win.

In horse racing, the winning horse might be just a nose ahead of the horse that wins second place.

Get the ball rolling - to start, or to start so that others are encouraged to join in

We’ll get the ball rolling with introductions at 8 o’clock.

Multiple sports feature a ball, which, when rolling, indicates the game is underway.

Go to the mat - to argue or fight

Tom went to the mat for me during the restructuring, so I owe him.

This comes from wrestling, the mat being where fighting is done.

Go the distance - to complete something like a race, a competition, or some other goal that takes considerable time

We’re prepared to go the distance. We’ll take this case to the Supreme Court if we have to.

This expression also comes from boxing, where a boxer who finishes all the rounds is said to have gone the distance.

Throw in the towel - to persuade someone to do something they don’t want to do

I was trying to complete the report for hours, but I finally threw in the towel at midnight and went to bed.

Again, from boxing, where throwing in the towel is synonymous with admitting defeat.

Have someone in your corner - to have the support of someone

I’m glad to have you in my corner.

A boxer’s support staff assists them in the corner between rounds.

Throw one’s hat in the ring - to enter a contest or election as a candidate

Fred McGee has thrown his hat in the ring for senator.

In the past, throwing your hat into the boxing ring signified that you wanted to fight.

For more sports idioms, Wikipedia has a good collection. There are other (non-sporty) idiom questions here and read about how I approach teaching idioms here.