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25 Sports Idioms Explained to ESL Learners

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Kerlyn is a Filipina writer who has studied English. She wants to share her insights with new learners.

Read on to learn 25 sports-related idioms! As an ESL student, these will help you better understand English-language sports lingo.

Read on to learn 25 sports-related idioms! As an ESL student, these will help you better understand English-language sports lingo.

Idioms or idiomatic expressions are perhaps among the toughest topics for learners of English as a Second Language or ESL.

This is because idioms cannot be taken literally.

They have culturally embedded meanings that most native English speakers know.

This article covers just 25 of the most common idioms about sports that ESL learners should learn.

1. Whole New Ball Game

A situation is a whole new ball game if it has new conditions or circumstances that were not present before.


It’s a whole new ball game. More politicians announced their candidacy so we have to change our campaign strategies.

2. Up to Par

Something is up to par if it meets an expected level of quality. A person can also be up to par if he or she performs according to expectations.


The products were not up to par and had to be sent back to the suppliers for re-work.

3. Touch Base With

To touch base with someone means to get in touch with that person.


I touched base with my friends and sent them holiday greetings by e-mail today.

4. Toe the Line

Somebody toes the line if he or she recognizes authority and abides by the rules set by them.


In this company, you really have to toe the line or you’ll be fired.

5. Test the Water

People test the water by making some trials, experiments, or analyses of how something would work once it is launched or made public.


The company had tested the water before it launched its billion-dollar project.

6. Smooth Sailing

A situation is said to be on smooth sailing if it is going well, as planned, and without any problems.


It is smooth sailing so far. We have not encountered any problems that we did not anticipate.

7. Sink or Swim

Sink or swim is an idiom that often serves as a warning for people to work hard (swim) or face failure (sink).


She knows that she has to sink or swim. She is doing what she can to thrive in her craft.

8. Saved by the Bell

Saved by the bell means to be rescued from an awful condition at the last minute.


The group was saved by the bell when the professor dismissed the class before it could present its poorly prepared business plan.

9. Root for and Rally Around

To root for means to applaud and encourage somebody to win or do well. To rally around, on the other hand, means to join other people in applauding and encouraging somebody to win or do well.


His countrymen rooted for him, as other people rallied around his competitor.

10. Roll With the Punches

We roll with the punches when we try to adjust our ways so we can survive a difficult situation.


She had to roll with the punches and avoid causing more tension in her group.

11. Play by the Rules

We play by the rules when we follow the policies and conventions in a certain situation.


He played by the rules because he did not want to be penalized by his superiors.

12. Pitch an Idea

To pitch an idea means to make a suggestion.


It is difficult to pitch an idea during meetings. Our team president never entertains suggestions.

13. Pass the Torch or Pass the Baton

To pass the torch or pass the baton to someone means to hand over duties and responsibilities to that person.


The outgoing coach passed the torch to his longtime protégé.

14. Out of One’s League

A person is out of one’s league if he or she is not at the same level as the other person. Somebody who is out of one’s league is also said to be beyond a person’s reach.


She is out of his league. Still, he was brave enough to walk up to her after her tennis match.

15. Odds Are Against

If odds are against someone, then the chances of that person winning or becoming successful is small.


Odds were against the rising basketball star. However, he proved his critics wrong by doing his best in helping his team win the finals.

Call the Shots

Call the Shots

16. No Holds Barred

No holds barred is an idiom that means “no limits.”


There were no holds barred during the interview. The Olympian had to answer sensitive and personal questions from her fans.

17. Make the Cut

People or things make the cut if they are able to satisfy certain requirements. Those that do not make the cut are rejected and said to be substandard.


The drug that many athletes secretly take did not make the cut. Apparently, it contained ingredients that the drug authority regards as potentially addictive.

18. Level Playing Field

A level playing field is a situation in which all participants will have equal chances of succeeding. In a level playing field, there are no biases and discrimination against participants.


The sports commissioner promised to create a level playing field where both the rich and the poor athletes will have access to quality training.

19. Keep the Ball Rolling

Keep the ball rolling is an idiomatic expression that means “to sustain drive and energy.”


Despite being trounced during the first half, the team kept the ball rolling until the end. It finally won the match.

20. In Full Swing

The idiom in full swing is used to describe a situation that is at its peak.


The construction of the baseball stadium had been in full swing when it had to be stopped because of the strong earthquake.

21. In Deep Water

A person is in deep water if he or she is in a big trouble.


The gymnastics coach is in deep water after it was learned that he tried to bribe the judges.

22. Hit the Bull’s Eye

To hit the bull’s eye means to reach a big goal or address a big concern.


The athlete hit the bull’s eye when she scored a perfect 10 in three competitions.

23. Call the Shots

The idiom call the shots means to lay down the rules and make people follow them. People who call the shots are in control of a situation.


The coach calls the shots. He tells all the players what to do.

24. Ballpark Figure

A ballpark figure is an estimated number or amount. It is usually in the range of the actual and true number or amount.


The team manager did not know how much the team spent last year for training so he just came up with a ballpark figure.

25. Across the Board

Something is across the board if it is applied or imposed on everyone.


There will be an across the board wage increase at the national sports commission.

Sports Idioms

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


idioms is very unique and way know English better that's why I like it on January 20, 2020:

Idiom help people to pass message in an descent and impressive manner

Dianna Mendez on August 10, 2012:

Another well done hub on this topic! You are helping many out there.

Dina Blaszczak from Poland on August 05, 2012:

Good hub with useful information! Voted up and useful.

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on August 05, 2012:

My conversation classes love idioms and slang, but I need to parcel it out in small doses, or they can get rather tired. With the European Cup just past, and the Olympics on now, I think I shall introduce a few of these - thank you!