20 popular sports idioms in English (and how to use them)

20 popular sports idioms in English (and how to use them)

by Maria Inês Teixeira

Updated March 2, 2021

How was your gym session yesterday? Did you “throw in the towel”? Did you “meet your match”? Wait. No idea what we are talking about? That’s okay! Keep reading to discover 20 sports idioms in English. Yes, English speakers use them all the time, that’s why learning these expressions is so important for your everyday English – not everything people say should be taken literally. 

20 sports idioms in English

1. To drop the ball

Origin: Probably baseball, American football or cricket, in which dropping a ball is a serious mistake.

When you drop the ball, it means you made a stupid mistake or forgot something really important. In some situations, it also means you have given up before reaching your goal…which is definitely a mistake! Can you think of one or two situations in your life where you dropped the ball? 

Example: “You dropped the ball when you rejected that job offer.” 

2. To give your best shot

Origin: Shooting sports.

Sometimes we feel insecure and worried, but we want something so much that we still decide to go after it. It could be a job interview, an audition, getting a date or moving abroad. In those situations, we must “give our best shot” – this means trying your best.

Example: “Give this audition your best shot – you won’t regret it!”

3. To be out of (someone’s) league

Origin: Baseball.

When somebody is out of your league, it means they are much better or more successful than you are. English speakers use this to talk about people who don’t belong in the same group because of how different they are. Maybe you have advised one of your friends not to date a certain person because you thought they were not at the same level…well, now you can try this idiom!

Example: “She will never want to date me, look at her! She’s out of my league.”

4. To jump to conclusions

Origin: Jumping! 

Humans can be impulsive, emotional and irrational sometimes. That’s why the idiom “jump to conclusions” exists. When you believe something is true without enough proof to support your idea, you are jumping to conclusions. Was there a time in your life when you jumped to conclusions and then discovered you were wrong? 

Example: “You’re accusing him of stealing your wallet, but you still don’t have evidence that he did. Don’t jump to conclusions!

5. To stay ahead of the game

Origin: Any strategic sports that involve competition.

A smart way to be professional is to be prepared. Sometimes we have to predict what our competitors will do and know what their next move is going to be. We should also know what to expect from a challenge, be organised and stay focused. Staying ahead of the game means having a competitive advantage by being prepared and doing something before others expect you to.

Example: “The deadline for the report is tomorrow, but I want to be ahead of the game, so I finished it yesterday.”

6. To hit someone below the belt

Origin: Martial arts.

You hit someone below the belt when you do or say something unfair with the intention of hurting someone. By not looking the person in the face and fighting them directly, but rather being sneaky and “fighting dirty” with actions and words, you cause damage.

Example: “You hit her below the belt when you said she was ugly. You know she is very insecure!”

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7. To meet (one’s) match

Origin: Any competitive sport.

Life can get pretty boring without some competition, right? When you “meet your match”, it means you have finally found somebody who is as intelligent, talented, fast, attractive, clever, rich or successful as you are. It means you have found your biggest competitor and will have to fight for something against them!

Example: “Oh, so you think you’re a better driver than I am? You’ve just met your match.” 

8. A long shot 

Origin: Shooting sports.

When something is not likely to happen, we say it is “a long shot”. It makes sense, if you think about it. When the distance is very long, a physical shot is probably going to fail its target, as it is much more challenging. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! That is exactly why we use this expression: something can happen, it’s just not very probable.

Example: “It’s a long shot, but I think we’ll be able to finish this project tonight.”

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9. Don’t sweat it

Origin: Any sport – but let’s face it, probably crossfit!

This idiom is a nice way of saying “Don’t worry about it”. You can use it casually with family members, friends or colleagues when you want to comfort them in a moment of stress. You can also use it to excuse somebody who is apologising to you. For example, if a friend tells you “I’m so sorry I drank your water bottle, I didn’t know it was yours!” you can say “Don’t sweat it”!

Example: “Oh, you forgot your wallet? Don’t sweat it, I brought some extra cash.”

10. To keep the ball rolling

Origin: A presidential election!

General William Harrison became the 9th President of the United States of America in 1841. He ruled for 31 days only – he died one month after becoming president – but he had a strong marketing campaign at the time. His supporters helped him go from town to town by walking the streets while pushing big globes made of tin and leather called “Victory Balls”…all while chanting “Keep the ball rolling!”. Nowadays, we use this expression to say that we want to continue a process or activity with the same level of motivation, enthusiasm and progress.

Example: “If we want to get that prize, we need to keep the ball rolling. Let’s meet again tomorrow!”

11. To throw in the towel

Origin: Boxing.

Have you ever felt like giving up on something that felt very important to you? Maybe you were tired, exhausted, frustrated. If your answer is yes, it means you have wanted to “throw in the towel”. This is another way of saying “to give up”. What are some moments in your life in which you have wanted to throw in the towel? Why? 

Example: “Are you going to throw in the towel just because your boss fired you? You can’t! Get up and look for a new job!”

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12. To set the pace (for something)

Origin: Probably running.

When you set the pace for something, you are an example that others should follow if they want to be successful: you represent the best. If they want to be successful (at whatever we are talking about – sports, music, business), they should do what you are doing!

Example: “The moment she started working for us, she set the pace for the rest of the team. They had to sell as much as her if they wanted to stay in the company!”

people setting the pace sporting idiom

13. The ball’s in your court

Origin: Tennis.

As a tennis player, what happens when the ball gets in your part of the court? That’s right – you have to run after the ball and hit it with your racquet! This active, dynamic gesture inspired the expression “The ball is in your court”, which means “Now it’s your turn to do something, now it’s your turn to decide and make a move”. 

Example: “I did all of the work for you. Now the ball’s in your court. You decide what to do next!”

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14. To call the shots 

Origin: Believed to be the U.S. Military

Who calls the shots at your workplace? Probably your boss. Who calls the shots at home when you’re a teenager? Probably your parents. Who calls the shots in a country? A king, a president or a prime minister. See, the person who calls the shots is the authority figure in a situation. He or she is the person who makes the most important decisions!

Example: “I call the shots here. You do as I say, not what they tell you to do!” 

15. To have the upper hand

Origin: Cards.

Some people love competition, some people hate it. But one thing is true – someone will always have the upper hand in a competition! So what is the meaning of “having the upper hand”? When you use this expression, it means someone has an advantage – they have something that makes them stand out and more likely to be successful.

Example: “They have the upper hand in this industry because they have the latest technology.”

16. To take time out

Origin: Any sport.

All of us need “a time out” once in a while: a short break in which we take time to think, reflect, get some rest or relax. When you take a time out, you stop what you are doing in order to pause and recollect your thoughts.

Example: “I plan on taking time out between college and getting a job to understand what I really like doing.”

17. To take the bull by the horns

Origin: Bull fighting.

How do you deal with your problems? Are you the type of person who waits for a solution or do you take the bull by the horns and try to find a solution yourself? If you confront an unpleasant situation (or person) with courage rather than having a passive attitude, that means you have finally decided to take the bull by the horns!

Example: “It’s about time you stopped hiding. Take the bull by the horns and tell her how you really feel!”

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18. To take sides 

Origin: Any group sport in which teams compete.

If you have strong opinions, you are probably a person who takes sides frequently. When you take sides, you are supporting one person or idea against another one. This means you are not unbiased – you are leaning toward one side of a debate or conflict. 

Example: “My friends are fighting and I don’t want to take sides. I love both of them!

19. To be on target 

Origin: Darts.

Have you ever tried playing darts? When you are on target, it means you have great aim! If you use this in English, it means you are correct, that a guess you’ve taken is accurate. In the context of business or a meeting, it means you are on schedule and everything is going as predicted…which is positive! 

Example: “What you said yesterday was on target. We need more funds for our idea.”

20. Go the distance

Origin: Boxing.

Some people wait for success to fall on their lap. Some hope for a bright future, but feel too lazy, tired or unmotivated to go after it. But not you! We know you are somebody who goes the distance – you do whatever it takes to succeed, even if it is difficult and requires lots of effort, just like a boxer who becomes a winner through lots of practice, persistence and training. Are you willing to go the distance to learn a new language?

Example: “Getting a promotion is difficult, but I trust you. I know you can go the distance and get it sooner than you might think!”