What is your sport?
Who is your team?
The answers to these questions can be very important.
They can mean the difference between making a new friend or starting an argument.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of football, rugby, baseball or cricket, or even if you are not much of a sports fan at all.
It’s hard not to get excited about big global events like the Olympic Games and the World Cup.
Sports can bring people together or they can divide people. Either way, they are often a good conversation starter for English learners.
English speakers love talking about sports so much that they’ve actually become part of the language, particularly when it comes to idioms.
The Importance of Idioms in English
Native English speakers use all kinds of idioms. Idioms are expressions that say things that aren’t literal. If you don’t know someone is using an idiom, it might sound like they’re talking about something else. Idioms are essential for those who wish to become more fluent.
It wasn’t until I was teaching in Korea that I realized how frequently we use them. A Korean colleague approached me, slightly confused, after watching some American TV shows in his spare time. He had noted down any phrases he didn’t fully understand. He knew all of the words and their individual meanings, but he couldn’t work out what they meant when put together. Does this sound familiar to you?
When I looked through his list, I saw many of the idioms were relating to baseball. I did my best to explain the ones I knew. I admit I had to look a few up.
After all, even native speakers can’t know every single idiom in the English language. In my defense, I am from Britain. We love football, rugby and cricket, and we will watch tennis once a year when it’s Wimbledon. I have never seen a baseball game in my life.
This colleague of mine spoke English very well. But what is the difference between someone who can speak very well and someone who speaks like a native?
Often, it is the ability to understand idioms and cultural references and slip them into conversation. Read on and I will show you how.
Ideas for Studying Sports Idioms
Reading and understanding definitions is helpful. But the key to improving your fluency is to keep these things in mind: exposure (how often you see and hear English), motivation and practice!
The more you are exposed to idioms by hearing them used, the more understanding and using them will come naturally to you.
Here are some sources to get you exposed to the right kind of language for recognizing sports idioms. Using fun sources will keep you motivated and help you keep practicing the phrases you hear.
YouTube is also useful for clips with sports language. You can find everything from sports commentary shows to sports highlights. You can even find sports-related comedy shows (note: those ones often use rude language). Watch a few and see how many new phrases you can pick out. Later on, you may hear these phrases being used in other situations as idioms.
To get practice with all kinds of idioms and real English speech, you can check out FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, sports videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
To get you started, here are 10 very common sports idioms that you may hear in English.
10 Powerful Sports Idioms for Speaking English with Confidence
1. On the home stretch
In racing, the home stretch means the last part of the track. When an athlete sees the home stretch, they know the race is nearly finished. This idiom is used when something is nearing completion.
“It’s been a long year of hard work on this project, but we are on the home stretch now. I’m relying on you, Tim. Don’t mess this up.”
2. Front runner
The front runner (as you may be able to guess) is the athlete who is in the lead during a race. This person is in front, but hasn’t won yet. A front runner means the favorite or the person who is considered most likely to get or win something.
“I’ve applied for that new management role. What do you think my chances are of getting it?”
“Between you and me, your chances are very good. You are the front runner. Tim applied, too, but he doesn’t have a chance.”
3. The ball is in your court
In tennis, when the ball is on your side of the court, it is your turn to hit the ball. This is used to mean that it is someone’s turn to take action or make the next move.
“That hot new client has been flirting with me all morning. He just asked me what I’m doing later. Do you think I should meet up with him?”
“I don’t know, Tim. I’m working now. The ball is in your court.”
4. Par for the course
On a golf course, each hole has a par. This is the number of strokes that a player should need to finish a hole. This is the standard by which other golfers’ scores are measured. This phrase means something that is normal or to be expected.
“Tim walked into the office 20 minutes late today.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. That’s par for the course with Tim.”
5. Out of someone’s league
The “league” here is in reference to baseball leagues, where teams are grouped by their performance. Obviously, teams who perform better are in a different league than those who perform poorly. When we talk about a person being out of someone’s league, we mean that the person is too good for them.
“Did you meet Tim’s new boyfriend? He’s so good-looking AND rich. He is way out of Tim’s league.”
6. Two strikes/Three strikes and you’re out
When a player is batting in a baseball game and they get three strikes, they are out of the game. If a player has two strikes against them, they know that they are on their final chance This is often used to talk about someone’s track record (or their past performance). If they have made two mistakes, that is two strikes. If they make three, then you are no longer willing to give them more chances.
“Tim missed the deadline again. That’s two strikes now. Three strikes and he’s out.”
7. Drop the ball
In baseball, when a fielder drops the ball, the other team can gain an advantage by running through the bases. To drop the ball is to make a mistake or to make a mess of something, often through carelessness.
“I needed Tim to send me those files for my presentation today, but he didn’t. He’s really dropped the ball on this one.”
8. Hit a home run/Knock it out of the park
Knocking it out of the park means the batter hits the ball so hard that it leaves the park. A home run is where a player runs through all four bases and scores for their team. To hit a home run or knock it out of the park means to do a fantastic job on something.
“Well done on that sales pitch, Bill. You knocked it out of the park. Tim could learn a thing or two from you. I haven’t seen him hit a home run like that in a long time’
9. Strike out
To strike out in baseball is to have three failed attempts at batting, which means you are then out. To strike out is to fail at something.
“Tim tried to ask the new guy on a date but he got turned down. Looks like he struck out.”
“But Tim already has a boyfriend. He’s pretty rich and good-looking, too.”
“Yeah, Tim is a jerk.”
10. Out of left field
In the game of baseball, this literally refers to the area covered by the left fielder. The left fielder is the farthest away from the first base and has longer to throw (yes, I did have to look this one up). This is used when talking about an event that is very surprising or unexpected.
“Did you hear that Tim had a heart attack? He’s only 35. Seemed like a healthy guy, too. That came way out of left field.”
After reading through these, you may still have a few questions. Who is Tim? How has he kept his job for this long? Why IS he such a jerk? What’s next for my English studies?
I don’t know about the first three questions (Tim is fictional, which means he’s not real), but the last one is up to you. Now is your time to take what you have learned in this post and use it. Follow up on what you have learned by checking out the links above, and try to put a few of these idioms to use.
Don’t drop the ball, follow my advice and you will knock it out of the park.
The ball is in your court.
And One More Thing…
What’s the key to learning conversational English like these sports idioms?
Using the right content and tools.
After all, a regular textbook isn’t going to teach you the English you’d hear at a ball game.
You need to learn from real English like it’s spoken on TV.
Well, there’s a site designed to help you with just that: FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks and turns them into English learning experiences. You’ll learn English as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a lot of fun videos—topics like popular talk shows, music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
FluentU makes it really easy to watch English videos. Don’t understand a word? Just tap on it to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, tap on the word “brought” and you see this:
And FluentU is not just for watching videos. FluentU is a complete system for learning English. Learn all the vocabulary in any video with useful questions. Multiple examples are always available for the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU remembers your vocabulary. Using those words, FluentU recommends new examples and videos to you. Your experience is truly personalized.
Start using FluentU on the website or practice anytime, anywhere with the iOS or Android apps.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.