Sports are something of an obsession in American culture, and discussion of them is not limited to the sports fanatic.
In fact, some knowledge of sports may be required even of people who don’t enjoy them to even successfully engage in small talk, for example. In addition, understanding idioms from sports may be required to function not only in informal situations but more formal: recently at the Democratic National Convention, for example, former President Bill Clinton’s speech was said by a reporter to have “hit it out of the ballpark,” a term drawn from baseball, when a player hits the ball so hard and far that it allows everyone on base to score: therefore, I know from this idiom that Clinton’s speech was a rousing success, at least in the view of this reporter. Knowing idioms like this is important to function in both informal and formal situations in American English, so teaching these idioms should be part of the ESL curriculum.
10 Common Sports Idioms for the ESL Class
To do an end run around
— American football; when a player goes around a teammate to score instead of passing the ball.
Idiomatic Meaning: To leave a key person out of a process.
To hit it out of the ballpark
— baseball; a ball that is hit out of the ballpark will allow everyone on base to score.
Idiomatic Meaning: to meet a goal more than was expected.
A slam dunk
— basketball. To score in one shot by evading blocking to shoot the ball through the hoop.
Idiomatic Meaning: to meet a goal easily and without opposition.
Out in left field
— baseball. Left field is “out,” where the game is not played and no scores made.
Idiomatic Meaning: A person who is out in left field makes off-topic or outlandish remarks, that don’t seem part of the “game.”
The home stretch
— baseball, the very last part of the game at the end of the ninth inning.
Idiomatic meaning: The “homestretch” of a project is the final phase.
To strike out
— baseball. A player who swings at a ball three times and does not hit it properly strikes out and must go to the end of the line.
Idiomatic Meaning: To strike out in a business deal is to fail after trying.
To not get to first base
— baseball. A player who strikes out cannot go to first base to attempt to score but must go to the end of the line.
Idiomatic Meaning: To try at a venture or project but fail to even complete the first stage.
A home run
— baseball. To run around the plates to home plate and score.
Idiomatic Meaning: a big success.
To pass the ball
— American football and basketball. To hand off the ball to a teammate rather than trying to score oneself.
Idiomatic Meaning: To give a task, usually undesirable, to a colleague.
To drop the ball
— American football. Accidentally dropping the ball allows the other team the possibility of scoring.
Idiomatic Meaning: To make a serious mistake, usually through inattention or carelessness, that affects a whole team or group.
Methods for Teaching Sports Idioms
Discussion of the Sport
Many ESL students have little knowledge of American football, basketball, and baseball and therefore might have trouble connecting idioms to the sport. Spend some time explaining each sport, the object of the game, and how it is played.
Match the Idiom to the Sport
Once students understand the sports, connect the idioms that go with it. For example, once students understand the object of baseball is to hit the ball, run around the bases and get back to home plate, and avoid being called “out,” then students will begin to understand how “to strike out” and “to not get to first base” are connected idioms.
Match the Definition to the Idiom
Once students have connected idioms to their respect sports, they can begin to produce definitions for each idiom, first by matching the definition to the idiom and then by generating the definitions on their own.
Practice in Conversation
It’s now time to practice the idioms in speaking. Have students choose about three idioms and practice using them first in a short “speech” or monologue on their own and then practice using them in dialogue.
Teach Correct Pronunciation
Idiom instruction is the perfect time to teach correct stress and pronunciation, especially what the French call “liaison,” or the connecting of words in rapid speech. To just take the first idiom on the list, the phrase “to do an end run around” is not pronounced that way, with each syllable receiving equal stress, but rather something like “tuh-do-uh-end-run-uhround,” with the content words stressed and the structure/grammar syllables unstressed “schwa” sounds pronounced “uh,” and then the whole phrase run together. This is native, fluent speech, and because idioms are even more connected than most speech, a perfect time to teach liaison.
Practice the Idiom in Writing
Believe it or not, these idioms are so pervasive that they are used in writing, sometimes relatively formal writing, like business memos and letters. A team leader might very well email his team with gratitude that they are finally in the “home stretch” of a project. Have students see if they can use three to five idioms in a memo or letter on a specific topic either assigned by the teacher or generated by the student.
Teaching sports idioms may seem a peripheral part of the curriculum than some concerns, such as teaching correct sentence stress and writing.
That is true to some extent, but these idioms are such a large part of U.S. culture that pronunciation and writing tasks can be easily connected to them.