Sports metaphors can be a long shot

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February 4, 2013

We have to be faster, higher, and stronger! The media really jumped the gun on that story. Relax…Life is a marathon not a sprint.

Those are just a few Olympic terms we use to compare life to a high-level competition. And with one year to go to the Sochi Winter Games, we’ll likely be hearing more Olympic metaphors.

Metaphors help us understand the world by equating one concept with another. And whether you know it or not, we use them all the time. War is a game. A business is a family. Marriage is an institution; or, marriage is a partnership.

We use sports metaphors in particular.

Hail Mary pass

Hail Mary pass

We can use a football field to refer to making a desperate move like a Hail Mary pass or to run interference. A baseball field can represent struggle: we’re in the bottom of the ninth, or you need to step up to the plate.

Some Canadians stick with the ol’ hockey metaphor. Veteran communications specialist Barry McLoughlin gives an example:

“Look we’re ragging the puck on that issue right now, okay? You know we’re not going to release or announce this just yet, we’re ragging the puck. That’s a classic one that’s used extensively.”

McLoughlin says sports metaphors can be a great communication tool: “Whether you’re involved personally in sports, whether your kids are in soccer or in hockey, or whether your spouse is watching it on television, it becomes the language that everybody can share in”.

But McLoughlin adds that if you’re in the political or business world, using too many sports metaphors can be risky. “Because after awhile, it’s almost as if you’re taking the issue too lightly. Maybe you’re not getting the emotions and feelings behind it,” he says.

“This would be a concern in terms of your own sincerity and credibility.”

Indeed, the metaphors we use can tell us something about how we think. And what we think can determine how we act, and how we relate to other people.

Slap shot

Slap shot

So, what if you don’t see the world in terms of sticks and pucks?

McLaughlin says with more women in business and politics, sports metaphors could be on the way out: “I think we’re on a decline in the usage. It’s a heavy kind of legacy of a macho era, and it’s not seen as overly sophisticated.”

While some women do of course use sports metaphors, others prefer comparisons to home or family. For instance, describing government priorities in terms of balancing the household chequebook.

It’s less competitive – more cooperative.

New immigrants, too, are bringing different ways of seeing the world, and a passion for different sports. Soccer is Canada’s fastest growing sport, and there’s no shortage of people who see life as a soccer field where you don’t want to be shown the red card.

While the sports metaphors we use may be changing, it’s safe to say they’ll be around for as long as we play games.

May you ALL own the podium.

Listen to the audio here:


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