Woman hitting a baseball with a bat.

30 Sports Idioms in English

Native English speakers use all kinds of sports idioms, but it wasn’t until I was teaching in Korea that I realized how frequently we use them.

A Korean colleague, who spoke English very well, approached me after watching American TV with a list of phrases he didn’t fully understand. He knew all the words and their meanings, but couldn’t work out what they meant when put together.

When I looked through his list, I saw that many of the idioms related to baseball, and also to some other sports like football, soccer and boxing.

Understanding these sports idioms will help you keep up with casual conversations in English—whether they’re about sports or not. Let’s play ball!


1. In 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 in the home stretch now.”  

2. Front Runner   

The front runner is the athlete who is in the lead during a race. This person is in front, but hasn’t won yet.

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A front runner means the favorite or the person who is considered most likely to get or win something.

“Between you and me, your chances are very good at getting this job. You’re the front runner.”  

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.

“The client came back with their counter-offer. The ball is in your court.”  

4. Par for the Course  

On a golf course, each hole has a number known as the “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. The phrase “par for the course” describes something that is normal or to be expected.

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“Tim walked into the office 20 minutes late today.”  

“That doesn’t surprise me. That’s par for the course with him.”  

5. Out of Someone’s League  

The “league” here is in reference to baseball leagues, where teams are grouped by their skill and performance.

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—way out of Tim’s league.”  

6. Two Strikes  

In baseball, the batter gets only three chances to hit the ball, each miss is called a “strike.”

So if a player has two strikes, they know that they are on their final chance to hit the ball.

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This is often used to talk about someone’s track record, or their past performance.

“Tim missed the deadline again. That’s two strikes now.”  

7. Three Strikes and You’re Out   

When a player is batting in a baseball game and they get three strikes, their turn is over and the team earns an “out” for that inning.

Once someone makes three strikes, you are no longer willing to give them more chances.

“This is the third time Tim has missed the deadline, so that’s it. Three strikes and he’s out.”  

8. 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.

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“Tim didn’t send me those files for my presentation today. He really dropped the ball on this one.”  

9. Hit a Home Run   

A home run is where a player runs through all four bases and scores for their team.

To “hit a home run” means to do a fantastic job on something.

“Congratulations on closing the deal! I haven’t seen you hit a home run like that in a long time.”  

10. Knock It Out of the Park  

This idiom refers to when a baseball batter hits a home run with so much power that it leaves the park or even the stadium. This is usually considered even more impressive than a regular home run.

To “knock it out of the park” means doing a really exceptional job on something.

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“Well done on that sales pitch, Bill. You knocked it out of the park.”   

11. 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.”  

12. 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.

When you say an event “came out of left field,” it’s similar to saying it “came out of nowhere.” The phrase describes something that is very surprising or unexpected.

“Did you hear that Tim had a heart attack? He’s only 35. That came way out of left field.”  

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13. Hail Mary  

This phrase is used in many sports, such as baseball and football, to describe a last-ditch or desperate effort to try an achieve a goal, often with little chance of success.

One example of this is a losing football team kicking a field goal from the other end of the field.

This idiom can also be applied to life. When you need a win so badly that you’re willing to take a big risk.

“I got fired this week, but I’m pulling a hail Mary and calling the CEO directly to beg for my job back.”  

14. Behind the Eight Ball  

In pool or billiards, when another ball is behind the eight ball, you risk that ball being sunk also, which would cause your opponent to get another chance to take the game and win. 

It means being in a difficult or disadvantaged position, sort of like “between a rock and hard place,” another non-sport English idiom that means the same thing.

“I feel like I’m behind the eight ball with this new project.”  

15. Don’t Be a Bench Warmer   

In baseball, football or soccer, a bench warmer is a player who doesn’t play, so they’re relegated to sitting on the bench, watching their teammates play the game. 

It refers to a player who rarely gets to participate in a game or is often kept on the sidelines, so this idiom can be applied to life in the same way to apply to someone who is afraid to live their lives—risks and all.

Don’t be a bench warmer, Susan. Get out there and date some people!”  

16. Skating on Thin Ice  

This idiom applies to several sports: ice skating, figure skating or even speed skating. As an idiom, it means being in a risky or precarious situation. The ice could shatter and you could end up in some icy cold water.

“You’re skating on thin ice, mister. You better clean your room.”  

17. Cut Someone Off at the Pass  

If you cut someone off at the pass, you’re blocking them from achieving an important goal. As as idiom, comes from the sport of football, meaning you’re preventing the quarterback from making his pass (throw).

It means to intercept or prevent someone from achieving their objective.

“I feel sorry for Frank. Steve cuts him off at the pass every day at work.”  

18. Hit a Winning Streak  

A winning streak could apply to almost any sport, when the team (or individual athlete) is experiencing a period of a lot of wins, whether it’s tennis, soccer or skateboarding competitions.

It refers to a series of consecutive victories in life as well.

“I feel like I’ve hit a real winning streak. I got a raise and got married the same week.”  

19. Blow the Whistle  

In sports such as football and soccer, when a referee blows the whistle, it means that a player has committed an infraction of some kind, or that play must be temporarily be halted for a time out.

In life, this idiom means to expose or report wrongdoing or to stop an activity that shouldn’t be occurring.

“I’m thinking about blowing the whistle on Tom. He’s not being honest with her.”  

20. Run Interference  

This idiom, from the sport of football, means to block or disrupt other players to benefit your own teammate.

In the rest of life, it means to intervene or obstruct on behalf of someone to help them achieve their goal. 

“Can you run interference for me? I want to get the new puppy inside before Tom sees it.”  

21. Play Hard and Fast  

Playing hard and fast in many different sports means to be aggressive in order to win at all costs, right on the border between safe and legal and dangerous and prohibited play.

It means to be aggressive or assertive in pursuing a goal.

“If you want to get a million dollars before you’re 30, you’re going to have to play hard and fast.”  

22. Down for the Count  

In boxing, being down the count means that you’ve been knocked out or pushed down to the mat and the referee is counting. If he gets to ten, you’re considered the loser of the bout.

In the rest of life, this idiom means being defeated or incapacitated, and possibly, unable to continue.

“I’m down for the count. I need to stay in and rest all weekend.”  

23. Play Ball

“Play ball” is a phrase used by the umpire at the start of a baseball game to signal that the game has started.

It can also be used in non-sport related activities, such as starting a new project, or another kind of game or activity. A second related meaning is that you must be willing to participate, or to play the game.

“You’re going to have to play ball if you want to be a part of this team.”  

24. Cover Ground  

This idiom is from sports that are played on large fields or pitches such as soccer, football and baseball. 

It means to move quickly and efficiently to accomplish a task or reach a goal.

“We’re going to have to cover a lot of ground if we want to be finished by Friday.”  

25. Level Playing Field  

This idiom is from the sports of football and baseball, and it refers to a fair competition where everyone has an equal chance. It means no one has a special unfair advantage.

“We need this office to be a level playing field. No one gets a special advantage because of their last name.”  

26. Keep Your Eye On the Ball

This idiom is from the sports of soccer, baseball and football. It means that the players should be highly aware of the ball at all times. 

In the rest of life, it simply means being alert, attentive or competent.

“She’s really keeping her eye on the ball with this project.”  

27. Throw in the Towel

In sports, the towel is thrown when the game is over, perhaps in the locker room. 

This well known idiom refers to giving up or conceding defeat—perhaps prematurely. 

“Don’t throw in the towel. There are other ways we can do this!”

28. Play Hardball  

This idiom is from baseball and it refers to the hard type baseball that is used in the upper leagues and professional level of the sport.

It means to be tough or uncompromising in negotiations or discussions.

“We’re going to need to play hardball if we want this deal to close this week.”  

29. Cover All Bases  

This idiom is from the sport of baseball, where players are guarding the three “bases” so that the opposing team’s players don’t score runs.

Out of the world of baseball, it means to consider and address all possible outcomes or scenarios.

“We need to cover all bases for this negotiation.”  

30. Throw a Curveball  

In baseball, the pitcher can throw a ball that has a subtle spin on it, often causing the batter to miss the hit, resulting in a strike out.

In life, it means to surprise or deceive someone with an unexpected move or action.

“He threw a curve ball with that one. I didn’t expect that offer.”  

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.

If you are a sports fan, you may already be reading and watching sports news in English. But if you’re just starting, BBC Sport and other sports news websites can be good sources.

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.

You could also use a virtual immersion program like FluentU.

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Follow up on what you have learned by checking out the links above, and try to put a few of these idioms to use.

The ball is in your court!

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