When can you use "play" to talk about a sport?

Soccer ball

When you're talking about sports in English, one confusing point is whether you can use the word "play" or not. In English, we use "play" to talk about some sports but not others. Here's an explanation of how to talk about different sports and the athletes that play them.

Can you play it?

In English, we say "play tennis" or "play baseball" but we don't "play" running or swimming. Here's a list of sports that use the word "play":

  • play basketball
  • play soccer
  • play golf
  • play cricket
  • play volleyball
  • play tennis
  • play table tennis
  • play badminton
  • play hockey

You might notice that most of these use some kind of ball or a similar object.

When you talk about other sports, instead of "play" you can say "do" or "compete in":

She does gymnastics.

I've been competing in archery since I was a small child.

Most sports that don't use "play" also have a specific verb that you can use instead:

Does she run track?

I used to fence.

I tried skiing a few times but I wasn't very good at it.

I think he's almost good enough to skate competitively.

What are the athletes called?

A similar question is, when you talk about an athlete, what do you call them? Are they a "player" or something else?

For the sports that you "play", the athletes are usually called "players":

The players have just arrived.

I met a professional football player on my flight to London.

Professional basketball players are so tall!

One exception to that is golf. People who play golf are golfers, not "golf players".

For the other sports, there are a wide variety of different words:

He's a great cyclist.

Sprinters have to have really muscular legs.

Summary

The easiest way to get good at talking about sports is not to find a rule for deciding which sports you play and which ones you don't. It's to simply memorize the sports that you care about and how you should speak about them. Here's a list that you can reference:

Sport Actions Athlete
archery shoot / do archer
badminton play badminton player
baseball play baseball player
basketball play basketball player
boxing box / fight boxer
canoeing do canoeist (though this is uncommon)
cricket play cricket player
cycling ride / do cyclist
diving dive / do diver
fencing fence / do fencer
figure skating skate / do figure skater
football play football player
golf play / golf golfer
gymnastics do

gymnast

hockey play hockey player
horse racing ride / do jockey
karate/judo/taekwondo/etc. compete in / do martial artist
rowing row / do rower
rugby play rugby player
skiing ski / do skiier
sledding sled / do sledder
swimming swim swimmer
table tennis play table tennis player
tennis play tennis player
triathlon compete in / do triathlete
volleyball play volleyball player
weight lifting lift / compete in / do weight lifter
wrestling wrestle / do wrestler

 

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