A handy guide to common sports metaphors

Communicators love to compare experiences to adrenaline-fueled sports events. Make sure your lack of sports knowledge doesn’t let you down with this explainer.

Writers and editors frequently encounter mangled and confusing metaphors in messages from our executives and co-workers.

it’s your job to correct those metaphors, so you can communicate clearly with your audience, but when it comes to sports metaphors, some pros can quickly strike out.

Sports metaphors (or phrases or idioms) are used universally in the workplace. It’s a rare meeting that goes by without a manager asking, “Who will quarterback this project?” or someone mentioning “bench strength.”

Yet, not everyone understands these metaphors. For those of us who have never played sports, don’t follow sports, or only comprehend enough about sports to make awkward small talk, sports metaphors can be a headache.

To solve the mystery and help everyone communicate more clearly, below are a few popular sports metaphors and their definitions. Give yourself five points for each one you know.

(Definitions from Dictionary.com, Phrases.org, and The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A Compendium of Competitive Words and Idioms by Josh Chetwynd)

1. Behind the eight ball — to be in a difficult situation; to be in a losing position. The phrase is thought to come from the game Kelly pool, in which players assigned balls with numbers higher than 8—balls that are behind the 8 ball in order—have little possibility of winning.

2. Bench strength — the competence and number of employees who can fill vacant leadership and other key positions. In sports, it means the quality and number of players available to substitute during a game.

3. Block and tackle — to get back to the basics. In football and rugby, blocking and tackling are the basic components of the game.

4. Call an audible — to make a change at the last minute. In football, a quarterback may “call an audible” and change the play at the last minute based on how the defense is lining up. The quarterback will call out the play change vocally while his teammates are lined up.

5. Carry the ball — to have a lead role; to be relied upon to complete a project; to advance. In football, it is the player who is relied on to gain yardage and protect the ball.

6. Covering all the bases to deal with a situation thoroughly; to be prepared; to inform someone of all aspects of a situation. In baseball, it means having players near all the bases.

7. End around — an attempt to avoid or bypass opposition. In football, it is an attempt to run around your own line of players and toward the goal.

8. Full-court press an intense effort to exert pressure. In basketball, it is a strategy by the defenders to put pressure on the opposing team over the entire court.

9. Hands down — to do something easily or unconditionally. In horse racing, “to win hands down” means the jockey or rider has released his or her hold on the reins because victory is certain.

10. Level the playing field — a situation in which everyone has a fair and equal chance of succeeding. In games such as rugby and soccer, one team would have an unfair advantage if the field had a slope. To make it fair, teams customarily switch ends of the playing field at half time.

11. Quarterback — someone who directs or coordinates a project. When used as a verb (against the advice of communicators everywhere), it means to take charge of a project. In football, the quarterback is the person who throws the ball and directs the team’s offense.

12. Ringer — an imposter; a person who misrepresents his or her identity in order to win. In team sports, an athlete who joins a team under false pretenses in order to strengthen the team.

13. To run interference — to handle or solve problems for another person. In football, running interference means to obstruct opponents so the person with the ball can advance.

14. Wheelhouse — a person’s area of expertise. In baseball, “the wheelhouse” is the swinging range in which a player is most likely to make contact with the ball.

15. Wild goose chase — a search for or pursuit of something unattainable; a useless effort. In equestrian sports, it refers to a method of horse racing in which the riders follow the lead horse at a set distance, mimicking wild geese flying in formation.

Do you have any other sports metaphors to add to this list?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor, and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her posts on corporate writing and editing at impertinentremarks.com.

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