Sports Idioms For The Sporty Learner

11.04.2016 |

It is funny how big sporting events such the FIFA World Cup, Wimbledon or the Olympics can suddenly turn entire nations sporting mad, even for armchair fans who only cheer on their teams from the comfort of their own homes. Although most people do tend to have a passing interest in sports, we are never as avid fans as when there is a great sporting event taking place.

Some country will be celebrating victory after winning the most goals in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, and although it might not be your country who wins the most, it is still a good opportunity to learn some phrases or idioms that originate from sports and that have been adopted into everyday speech. These idioms can be used in business situations, social occasions and, of course, during sporting events.

Let’s kick off with a simple one such as, well, kick off. We use this phrase when we want to initiate or start something, but we could just as easily say let’s get the ball rolling, get a head start, be first out of the gate, play ball or even make a flying start.

Plain sailing: This denotes a simple or easy situation, although from my experiences there are very few easy situations in real life. Businessmen and women often use this phrase to describe complex decisions or discussions in which they are hoping for a positive outcome.

Example: Golfer Tiger Woods hit a couple of bad shots early in his round, but it was plain sailing after that and he won the match easily.

The ball is in your court: Often used when a decision needs to be reached and the responsibility has passed onto a single person to decide. Sometimes though, it is used by others to strong-arm someone into making a decision against their better judgment.


• We’ve offered him ten thousand dollars a month, so the ball’s in his court now.

• They know our position, so the ball’s in their court. If they want to pursue the matter, they’ll have to make the next move.

Call the shots: Usually this signifies who is in charge or making the decisions and where you would go to ask for advice if needed. In cases where different groups are meeting, one might ask the other who is calling the shots in order to discover who they need to impress the most.

Example: It’s up to the boss to call the shots.

Saved by the bell: A term from boxing which signifies when a lucky or fortunate event occurs which has a positive outcome. It describes encountering an event which may have saved you from misfortune, but was totally unexpected.

Example: My teacher asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to and right before I was prompted to reply with an answer, I was saved by the bell.

A level playing field: Often denotes when there is an equal amount of opportunity between rivals, this can apply to candidates with similar skills and experiences who have applied for a new job or promotion, or alternatively be between companies hoping to win a big contract. There is a fair chance for everyone to win or succeed.

Example: We’re starting off with a level playing field, so everyone has an equal chance of winning the deal at the end of this project.

However, it is not just business situations where these idioms are used. They are used in everyday common language by most of us, so it is important to grasp their meanings as quickly as possible. Idioms exist in most modern languages, but they do not tend to translate very well into anything meaningful when literally translated word-for-word. It is their figurative meanings that are important, which normally cannot be easily understood from the literal meanings of the words.


Recommended book

“Oxford Word Skills: Advanced: Idioms & Phrasal Verbs” by Ruth Gairns and Stuart Redman


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