#230: 19 Sports-Related English Idioms & More | Advanced Vocabulary

Feb 2, 2022 | Advanced Vocabulary, Idioms & Figurative Language

Okay, so I have to admit — I am not a sports fan, at all.

But then the Olympic Games or the World Cup come around and suddenly I’m all in.

As Olympic fever hits, the World Cup Final approaches, or the Super Bowl comes on, you’ll probably notice that even those who are unenthusiastic about sports are ready to jump on the bandwagon to discuss the event.

However, whether you’re speaking to someone who’s familiar with sports or watching the event on TV, there are probably some phrases or words that leave you feeling like you’re in the dark. 

In this lesson, you’ll learn 19 sports-related English idioms and phrases to confidently express your thoughts on the game AND accurately pinpoint the feeling associated with each phrase.

To provide some structure to this lesson, I’ve divided the 19-sports related phrases into 5 different scenarios or phases of a sporting event:

  • When your team is winning and you’re cheering
  • When there’s a turn in events
  • When your team is losing and you’re feeling disappointed
  • When it’s a nail-biter
  • When you’re describing the team or a specific athlete

Let’s start with the high-energy phrases you might hear commentators and spectators alike use when a team or athlete is doing well.

19 Sports-Related English Idioms & More

Scenario #1: When Winning/Cheering

1- To have the upper hand

“To have the upper hand” means to have a winning advantage or have control over someone or something

Perhaps, the Dutch speedskating team has greater control on bends and turns in the track.

You might hear a commentator exclaim, “The Dutch team certainly has the upper hand with this track!


2- To take the lead

Generally speaking, when someone “takes the lead”, it means that person takes charge. For example, in a business meeting, someone might take the lead or take charge. 

However, in most sports contexts, it also means to advance into first place.

Imagine you’re watching a 10m final and your favorite runner manages to run past the fastest runner on the track. When this happens, you might hear the newscaster cry, “And…he takes the lead! He may bring home the gold!”  


3- To land it

Landing something often refers to successfully acquiring something, 

For example, “I was lucky to have landed this job before the pandemic hit”

However, we also use this phrase to mean that an athlete has successfully performed a difficult move. 

Perhaps you’re an avid gymnastics enthusiast and decide to watch Simone Biles perform. After she completes a difficult move, you might jump up and exclaim “Wow, she actually landed it!”


4- To nail [something]

Similarly, when a team or athlete does something perfectly, you might say, “They nailed it in the semi-finals”! 

“To nail it” means to achieve something or do something perfectly. You’ll hear this often in highly technical sports, like figure skating, skiing, or gymnastics.


5- To knock it out of the park

When you’re DEEPLY impressed with a performance and excited, this phrase is perfect:

To knock it out of the park

It means to perform beyond expectations or do something extraordinarily well.

Imagine you’re watching the figure-skating finals during the Olympics. Yuzuru Hanyu leaves everyone at a loss for words after his performance and the commentator exclaims, “That was unbelievable; he knocked it out of the park!

Scenario #2: When There’s A Turn of Events:

In every major sporting event, there are inevitably a number of surprising twists and turns. Whether you’re following a game or even the medal count, sometimes a turn of events can take us completely by surprise. 

Here are some phrases that are useful for such moments:

6- To throw a curveball

Perhaps you’re watching a football match and a star player misses an easy penalty shot. At that moment, someone might comment, “Lady luck certainly threw a curveball there.”

“To throw a curveball” describes a tricky, unusual, or difficult situation that results from going off the normal path.

7- Out of left field

Now, when any event occurs unexpectedly, you may hear the phrase “out of left field”.

For example, the IOC recently expanded the number of sports in the Summer Olympics.

Some critics might express, “Rockclimbing came out of left field. We weren’t expecting the International Olympic Committee (or IOC) to include this activity as a sport in the Olympics.

To come out of left field means to unexpectedly occur or to appear out of nowhere. We use this term when the emergence or occurrence of something takes us by surprise.

8- To be blindsided

On the other hand, when the surprise is unpleasant, we use the phrase “to be blindsided”.

The athletes were completely blindsided by the IOC’s ban.

Scenario #3: When Losing/Disappointed:


9- Jump the gun

Sometimes, the anxiety of competing can get to even the best of athletes. When they’re poised to begin, some may accidentally “jump the gun”. 

Perhaps you’re watching an intense hockey game and the team you’re cheering for begins to lose due to a missed pass. As a spectator, you might disappointedly comment, “He jumped the gun and passed the puck too soon. He should’ve waited!


10- To fall behind

When a winning streak begins to slow down or when there’s a loss in rank, in comparison to others, we use the phrase “ to fall behind”.

Great Britain was doing well but fell behind as Japan surpassed them with four gold medals.


11- To withdraw

A term that may not sound too pleasant for sports enthusiasts is “to withdraw”. To withdraw means to formally leave or back out of a competition. 

The nation was shocked when Simone Biles withdrew from the Summer Olympics.

Alternatively, in a less formal conversation, you may hear someone use the phrase “to drop out” instead.


12- Hail Mary

When your team is losing and is in desperate need of a miracle, they may attempt a “Hail Mary”.

A “Hail Mary” is a desperate move or play that has a very slim chance of being successful. The phrase is deeply rooted in American Football and is also used to describe a pass in this sport. 

Ex.Though Sarah Davies was close to passing out, she made a Hail-Mary attempt to lift 133 kg.

Scenario #4: When It’s a Nail-biter:

13- Let’s pause to talk about what a nail-biter is.

Think for a moment about physical signs of anxiety. Some people fidget with their hands or feet. Some start to feel hot. And some bite their nails.

A nail-biter is a situation (a TV show, movie, or game, for example) that causes great anxiety or tension. Like when there is a tie between the two teams in a World Cup Final.

Imagine you’re watching your favorite athlete give it their all or your team battle it out. At some point in the game, it might come down to the last second, the final round, or even the final meter. 


14- Down to the wire

When time is running out or if the athletes are on their final lap, determining the winner will probably come down to the very last second. 

“Down to the wire” means the last possible second or inching extremely close to the very end.

During those last few moments, you may hear a commentator exclaim, “We’re coming down to the wire, but Team USA just may pull through!


15- Similarly, when someone enters the final lap, round, or meter, we say that they’re on the home stretch now


16- To be neck and neck

However, as you’re sitting at the edge of your seat, you may even see a fierce battle unfold between the top athletes or teams. In fact, it may even be impossible to determine the winner. 

“To be neck and neck” means to be extremely close or exactly equal. 

Shericka Jackson and Marie-Josee Ta Lou were neck and neck as they competed to win the Women’s Track & Field semi-final.


Scenario #5: When Describing Athletes/Teams:


There are several ways to describe athletes based on their physical appearances and/or performances.

Usually, a mind-blowing performance can create excitement and absolute joy; the way you praise or label an athlete reflects this.  


17- Underdog

When a player or team is underrated and is thought unlikely to win, their success may surprise you. 

The surprising win could lead to exclaim, “Everyone thinks they’re underdogs, but they’re truly champions!

An “underdog” is a competitor who is labeled as unlikely to win.


18- Dream team

That being said, if a team has proved their finesse and ability to successfully lead the pack, calling them the “dream team” may be appropriate. 

The “dream team” is a team of players that are the best in their sport and/or have proved their excellent skills several times.

With Klay Thompson back, the Golden State Warriors have been reinstated as the dream team.”


19- Hands down

Whether an underdog proves their worth or the dream team leads you to victory, you may want to exclaim that your athletes are the best. 

At some point in a conversation, you may hear someone say “He is, hands down, the best player on the team”. 

“Hands down” means that someone, or something, is without question or easily as you describe. 

Time to Practice!

By no means is today’s lesson an exhaustive list of the various phrases and exclamations you might hear while watching a world-famous sporting event.

There’s an endless list of expressions, idioms, and more.

  1. What other unique phrases or vocabulary have you heard during a game or sports-related conversation?
  2. What’s your favorite from today’s list? Share it with your own example sentence.

Do you have a favorite that I didn’t mention here? If so, tell me about it. You can share with me and the SCE Community in the comments below.

I look forward to hearing your responses.

~ Annemarie


P.S. Are you looking for a community to provide support, help you stay motivated, and guarantee that you grow? Check out our Confident Women Community.

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