As a new English speaker, you may often hear idioms, or short phrases, that have a meaning other than their literal one. Many of these idioms are borrowed from sports, and are frequently used in the American workplace these days. It can be confusing to sit in a meeting with colleagues or your boss and hear sports idioms that seem more appropriate to the baseball or soccer field than your 9-to-5 job.
Fear not: here is a list of 24 common sports idioms that have taken on workplace meanings.
Touch base. To check in with someone to let them know how a situation is progressing or a project is going. Your boss might say “let’s touch base once a week so you can give me an update.”
Step up (to the plate): When you step up, you prepare yourself to do a task or volunteer to take something on.
Hit it (or knock it) out of the park: To do an exceptional job or accomplish something truly beyond expectations.
Cover your bases: Make sure you have taken care of all the details and nothing has been forgotten or left out.
Strike out: To fail at a task. Sometimes you will hear “three strikes and you’re out,” meaning that you get three chances but if you don’t succeed there will be negative consequences.
Out of left field: Something that comes out of nowhere or takes you by surprise.
Play ball: To do business, to engage in partnership or commerce.
A whole new ballgame: The situation has changed significantly or completely.
Curveball: An unexpected complication.
Ballpark estimate: A guess or approximation of how much something will cost, how long it will take, how many staff will be needed, etc.
Pitch (something): To present an idea or suggestion to others (often clients) and gauge their reaction or get feedback.
(In your) wheelhouse: Something that falls into your area of expertise; a task or project you have the knowledge and experience to handle.
Down to the wire: When something is still uncertain or incomplete very close to the deadline.
In the home stretch: When a project or task is nearing completion and the end is in sight.
Get your head in the game: You need to focus on the task at hand and ignore distractions.
You’re on the ball: You’re anticipating things that will need to be done and getting started without being prompted.
Level the playing field: Ensuring that both (or all) participants have a fair chance at a positive outcome, without offering unfair advantages to anyone.
Get the ball rolling: To get a project or task started.
Drop the ball: If you drop the ball in football or baseball, it constitutes an error, and this meaning transfers over to the workplace. If you’ve dropped the ball, it means you’ve done something wrong, forgotten to do something, or overlooked something.
The gloves are off: In boxing and hockey, when the athlete removes their gloves, they intend to throw a punch at another player (and usually do). When the gloves come off in business, it means that the behaviour of the person or company (perhaps in a negotiation) will turn from calm, measured, and restrained to aggressive, ruthless or pushy.
Do an end run: In American football, the player carrying the ball may try to run around the outermost player on the other team’s line in order to make it into the end zone and score a touchdown. In business speech, to do an end run around someone means to try and avoid opposition by not consulting or making someone aware of what you are doing while you’re doing it.
Go to the mat: In wrestling, you battle your opponent on a mat. In business, to go to the mat means to go into metaphorical battle – to begin a difficult negotiation or challenging project.
Par for the course: In golf, the par for the course is the expected score that an expert player will obtain for the entire course. When used in the workplace, this phrase means the expected or usual situation or outcome.
Throw in the towel: During a boxing match, a player can concede defeat to their opponent by throwing their towel into the ring. It means the same in business: to admit that you are done and cannot succeed at your current job or task.
Depending on where you work and who you work with, you may hear more or fewer sports idioms. But if you learn to use these sports idioms properly, they’ll slip out naturally when the opportunity to use one comes up at the office. You will also be able to better understand conversations in the workplace.
Ask your Skype English teacher to help you practice using them in conversation and you’ll look like a pro!