Help your students hit a home run with sports idioms

sports idiomsIdioms! Perhaps they are one of the most colourful aspects of language to teach, conjuring up amusing imagery or teaching our students about culture. I had a lot of fun with them in my advanced classes, though found I had to guard against overuse! But a question here for teachers is: which ones to teach? One tends to come across many a student of English who knows the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs,” but I am racking my brains to think of a single time in my life I have heard that idiom in natural conversation.

If we are going to teach idioms, it makes sense to teach those that our students might encounter, but another question that pops up is: who are they going to be speaking to? Or, what are they going to be reading? Idioms can vary from British to American to Australian English, though some are also common to most or all ‘Englishes’. And if two second language speakers of English are conversing, what idioms might they use, if any?

In this post we’re going to look at eight idioms which originated in the world of sport. Four sports specifically: in the British corner, cricket and football (or soccer, if you like) and in the American corner (American) football and baseball. There will be two idioms for each sport. Which idioms are understood and used in both British and American English?

I (Michael Brand) will act as judge for the Brits, but have brought in an American ‘ringer’, Pearson teacher training department manager Brian Engquist, to be the judge for the Americans.

What’s the implication for the teacher? I would have said go for the global ones, what with the world becoming ever more global. But with current developments I’m not so sure!


  1. A ballpark figure

Example: ‘I don’t need to know the exact amount, just give me a ballpark figure: how much is it going to cost?’

Meaning: A rough estimate, an approximation

Michael’s verdict: I understand this and might very well use it too. It’s pretty global.

  1. Step up to the plate

Example: ‘We’ve got a lot of work coming in at the moment John, you’re going to have to step up to the plate.

Meaning: Rise to the challenge

Michael’s verdict: same as before. I understand it and might use it. Having looked through lists of baseball idioms, I think the majority are used in British English.

Football (or soccer)

  1. to score an own goal

Example: The government have scored an own goal with the new regulations, angering businesses instead of helping them.

Meaning: An action intended to improve but which causes harm

Brian’s verdict:  The example sentence provides a gloss which pretty much makes it clear, but without that I don’t think that most Americans would get it, unless, of course, they are a member of that minority group of stateside soccer fans!

  1. to move the goalposts

Example: We were about to sign the deal, but the other company moved the goalposts by demanding more money

Meaning: Change the rules

Brian’s verdict:  In common use in the US and one everyone would understand.  See Michael’s comment below (no controversy really!).

Controversy: some claim the idiom is from American football.

American football

  1. Monday morning quarterback

Example: Jenny told everyone the accident was inevitable…after it happened. She’s a Monday morning quarterback.

Meaning: One who criticizes or passes judgement from a position of hindsight

Michael’s verdict: I’d never heard of it and I suspect most other Brits haven’t either. Teach it if your student is off to study in America.

  1. Drop the ball

Example. He forgot to send her a valentines card? Oops, he dropped the ball a bit on that one!

Meaning: Make a mistake, often by being careless

Michael’s verdict: common usage. Get it taught!

Controversy: some claim this idiom for baseball, cricket or rugby!


  1. It hit me for six

Example: It really hit me for six when I heard Jackie say she was having twins.

Meaning: to be very surprised

Brian’s verdict:  The context of the sentence makes it clear here, as I would imagine it would in many cases, and the phrase itself is pretty intuitive-sounding with regards to the meaning, but definitely not something that most Americans would recognize immediately, and certainly not recognize as coming from cricket.

  1. That’s just not cricket!

Example: You can’t make me clean the kitchen after I cooked a big dinner: that’s just not cricket!

Meaning: It’s not done, it’s not acceptable (Cricket is supposed to be a game for ‘gentlemen’).

Brian’s verdict:  I think once again that this one would be obvious from the context.  And very similar to the most common American English equivalent: That’s just not kosher!


So, there you have it, eight sports idioms and how well they are understood either side of the Atlantic. So, which ones are you going to teach your students? The ball is in your court!

You might also be interested in…

– Differences between British and American English 

– 30 useful English idioms and expressions 


– 6 easy word games for the English language classroom

– 5 great activities for using movies in the EFL class

– 7 tips for teaching writing in the EFL classroom


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