30 Sports Idioms

By Mark Nichol


This post lists and defines terms derived from two or more distinct sports that by extension serve as idioms in other realms of endeavor outside athletics. (The original meaning is provided in parentheses.)

1. ace: accomplish something with ease (slang term for when an opposing player or team fails to return a serve)

2. bench: keep someone from participating; as a noun, a figurative reference to the members of a group as a whole or to the depth of talent of the group members collectively (seating for players not competing)

3. bench-warmer: a person with a negligible role (slang term for a player who spends most or all of a game sitting on the team bench rather than participating in competition)

4. cheap shot: a hurtful or unfair critical comment (an illegal hit during a contact sport)

5. drop the ball: fail or make a mistake (lose control of a ball and thus give up possession of it in favor of the opposing team)

6. game changer: something that significantly and suddenly changes a situation (a play during a game that abruptly alters the likely outcome)

7. game plan: strategy (the approach athletes practice to achieve victory in a competition)

8–9. get/keep the ball rolling: start an activity or project, or maintain progress on an activity or project, respectively (putting and keeping a ball in motion so that regulation play continues)

10. goal line: an achievement or benchmark considered a success (the line on a playing field across which a ball must cross in order for points to be scored)

11. hat trick: a very clever or deft maneuver (a series of three consecutive achievements in a game or season, based on a tradition in which a cricket player was awarded a hat for such an accomplishment)

12. hotshot: a conspicuously successful or talented person, or one who believes himself or herself to be especially successful or talented; often used sarcastically or derogatorily (a player unusually successful in making shots, or goals)

13. level playing field: an equitable arrangement (a flat surface on which a competition is held so that a slope does not favor one team)

14. long shot: an effort, or a person or thing, with little chance of success (an attempt to score a goal from a far distance)

15. losing streak: a record of a series of failures (a sequence of successive defeats by an athlete or team)

16. make the cut: qualify (having one’s name remain on a roster from which the names of other prospective team members have been removed or struck out, signifying retention of the one who has made the cut and disqualification of the others)

17. on the ball: alert, successful (remaining close to, or gaining possession of, a ball in a competition in order to achieve victory)

18. on the sidelines: having an indirect or insignificant role (the area next to the boundary of the playing area where team members not participating in a competition watch game play)

19. out of bounds: not acceptable or appropriate (outside the field of play, where a ball may not be carried or moved to score a point or goal until it is returned to a prescribed place on the field and play officially resumes)

20. referee: a mediator or arbitrator (an official responsible for overseeing a competition and monitoring that rules are being observed)

21. ringer: a person with a striking resemblance to another person, or an unauthorized substitute (a competitor not authorized to play)

22. score: achieve or obtain something desired, or record outcomes or results; as a noun, the status of a situation, or pertinent information (the tally kept during a competition)

23. sideline: as a noun, an additional pursuit or product line; as a verb, keep or remove from participation; in plural form, the state of observing rather than participating (the line marking the boundary of the playing field)

24. stay ahead of the game: anticipate changes in a series of events or incidents (predicting how a competition will play out and using that knowledge to affect the outcome)

25. take sides: support one faction or position at the extent of the other (forming the prescribed arrangement of team members before a competition begins)

26. team player: someone who gets along well with others or is loyal to a cause (an athlete whose performance supports a team’s success)

17. stage of the game: a point during a series of actions or events leading to an outcome (the notion of a particular interval or moment during a competition)

28. time out: a pause or break to assess a situation or provide time for reflection, or removal of a child from an activity as a form of punishment (one of a prescribed number of interruptions in competition each team is allowed to take to temporarily halt game play to discuss strategy)

29. winning streak: a series of successes (a sequence of successive victories by an athlete or team)

30. workout: an exercise routine, or any strenuous effort (a series of activities or exercises an athlete undergoes to enhance physical conditioning)

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