I am searching for an idiom which means

to have a disadvantage that makes your chances of winning bleak

It should appropriately fit in this analogy:

Head Start - Win
___ - Lose


16 Answers 16



Noun: 3. Any disadvantage that makes success more difficult:

e.g. "The main handicap of our business is lack of capital."

  • 1
    This doesn't really make sense, taking the example and flipping it: The main head start of our business is abundant capital. doesn't make sense. The main advantage of our business is abundant capital. does make sense, because handicap is the opposite of advantage, not head start. Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 17:49
  • 4
    I guess if you are looking for something which is literally the exact opposite of literally the words 'head start' you may be right. However 'head start' means 'to have an advantage', a 'handicap means to have a disadvantage.
    – Marv Mills
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 18:38
  • 8
    "Head start" only makes sense in the first place if you accept that sport (in particular, some kind of race) is the metaphor you're using. And in a sporting context, a handicap is exactly the opposite of a head start (rather than just being non-specifically the opposite of "advantage") in the sense of the intention behind it: a head start is given to the weaker contender, or a handicap to the stronger, to even the chances between them.
    – jez
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 1:11
  • 3
    @itcouldevenbeaboat but that isn't the use case the OP is asking for. "We had a head start" is damn near an antonym for "we started with a handicap" or "we had a handicap at the start" or even "we had a handicapped start." Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 0:35
  • 1
    A handicap is anything that makes it harder to win. It can be a late start, so you have to catch up, or it can be some continuous impediment, like an extra weight or using your non-dominant hand in a racket sport.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 19:43

A late start would fit the description.

"John had a head start and so he did very well in the race. Derek had a late start and finished last."


In actual races, it's usually the chest that has to clear the winning line rather than the head, but if we're sticking with "named body parts" relevant to one's chances of winning,...

a hamstrung competitor is unlikely to win the race.

hamstring noun - the large tendon at the back of the hock in the hind leg of a horse, etc.
hamstring verb - to cripple by cutting the hamstring of

  • I appreciate your efforts ,but this precisely is not what i want .. Your answer is an adjective ,specifying the quality of competitor.. I want an idiom for disadvantage that a person has for him to be a looser.
    – user99185
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 18:26
  • 2
    @QualityTalk: That being the case, I suggest you edit your question text to make it clear you're looking for a noun. We're pretty good here, but most of us aren't actually psychic. Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 22:05

Depending on the situation, “headwind” could offer an appropriate (and similar-sounding) opposing term. John had a head start and couldn’t lose, Jen had a headwind and couldn’t win.

head·wind or head wind (hĕd′wĭnd′)

  1. A wind blowing directly against the course of a moving object, such as an aircraft, bird, or runner.

  2. (Informal) A source of resistance, as to progress or success.

Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/headwind

  • Never heard headwind used as (2). From which country or community does this come?
    – user112637
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 4:28
  • @gecko: If you were to click on the link you would see that it comes from the USA. Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 23:36
  • @Lightness Races in Orbit: Do you know perchance which community in the USA uses it? I've never heard it there. Is this expression common in some particular field of business or region of the USA?
    – user112637
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 20:29
  • @gecko: I have no idea. I just clicked on the link and saw that the phrase was defined only by the American dictionary. Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 20:52
  • 1
    "Headwind" should be familiar to most in the US. Not a word I've used in this sense (that I recall), but the concept is certainly familiar to anyone who flies much (or rides a bicycle), and I see it used in the press from time to time.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 2:58

A lot of good answers here, but you might consider using “setback.”

Per Merriam-Webster:

setback, n.: a problem that makes progress more difficult or success less likely
Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/setback

This might serve well for your analogy pairs:

Head Start – Win


As suggested by Marv, “handicap” also seems like a suitable candidate. I suppose the choice might come down to nuance, in that “handicap” might suggest a personal, characteristic, or genetic encumbrance or hindrance whereas “setback” might imply a difficulty caused by external factors. Also, if matching the temporal aspect of head start is important, “handicap” is probably a more apt choice since it evokes the idea of an existing impediment at the onset (of a race, for example), whereas a setback could occur at any time.

  • 1
    No, I think handicap is not apt here. Suppose I want to express something exactly opposite of "These guys had a terrific victory but they never admitted that they had an unfair head start" as "These guys had a terrible defeat but all to blame is their unfair ____" . Here if I place handicap, it will not fit in . 'Setback' is more appropriate
    – user99185
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 19:37
  • 1
    @QualityTalk I upvoted this answer, but I think in your comment’s example I would prefer to see “handicap”. I might be influenced by the term as it applies to golf. Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 19:52
  • 2
    setback is something adverse that happens after you start. Whereas 'handicap'/'innate disadvantage' is something adverse you start with.
    – smci
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 2:18
  • 2
    @QualityTalk in that example your original word 'disadvantage' works perfectly: "...but all to blame is their unfair disadvantage".
    – Marv Mills
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 10:49

Slow off the line.

About the closest I can come up with.

  • 1
    'Slow off the blocks', to use the sprinting version, or 'slow out of the gate' for the horse version, or 'slow out of the trap' for dogs(/cockroaches/iguanas).
    – smci
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 2:20
  • 'slow off the start' as @aaa902010 said
  • 'slow off the blocks' for the sprinting version
  • 'slow out of the gate' for the horse version
  • 'slow out of the trap' for the dog(/iguana/cockroach) version

or just 'slow to start'

  • 1
    How about "Late out 'the gate"? Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 0:46

"Starting on the back foot" might be what you're looking for.


on the back foot

Definitions: at a disadvantage; outmanoeuvred or outclassed by an opponent

  • Downvoter, care to comment?
    – Deepak
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 10:13

A long shot:

  • a competitor, as in a race, considered to be unlikely to win

  • an undertaking, guess, or possibility with little chance of success

  • A head start (likely to win), a long shot ( likely to lose) .


  • 2
    Per your definition, this word refers to the disadvantaged competitor, not the disadvantage itself. Put the other way, I don’t call someone a “head start”; I would call likely winners “favorites” or something similar, and likely losers “underdogs” or “long shots” as you have here. Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 18:47
  • 1
    Long shot is the best answer. Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 7:15
  • 2
    @DuncanBabbage: no it's not. 'Long shot' refers to the chance of success, not the failure to get off to a good start.
    – smci
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 3:02

Left Behind would somewhat provide an equivalent opposite of Head Start and also linguistically match...


Slow Coach

My interpretation of the question assumes we are talking about a speed race, either figuratively or literally. I should add that I am English so my idiom will be English and may not translate into other languages well. To explain: many years ago a marketing guy told me the bus component of their computer was being dubbed the "Express Bus" and could I think what to call it's polar opposite, so they could knock the competition with it. After some thought I replied "Slow Coach!" Definitely the best answer in that application, and at a squeek, it might work for you too.

  • This phrase seems to refer to a disadvantaged competitor, not the disadvantage itself. Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 19:41
  • You are distinguishing between an internal or intrinsic disadvantage, such as a weakness or an innate lack of suitability, and an external disadvantage, such as starting from further behind the start line. The OP made no such distinction. Speaking of external disadvantages, why on earth would anyone be petty enough to mark me down for my contribution here? If this is typical of the standard of jerks I'll find on this board, this, my maiden contribution, will definitely be my last.
    – Frankie
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:28
  • @Frank I feel your pain.
    – shawnt00
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 6:13
  • @shawnt00 - thank you. One kind word helps me tolerate a hundred arrogant fools. Your support is much appreciated!
    – Frankie
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 14:26
  • I can't presume to speak for those who downvoted your response, but it seems plausible that they found it weak or innately unsuitable. The OP implied the distinction by requesting a term parallel to another term which, by your definition, would be an external disadvantage. You feel "slow coach" is to "lose" as "head start" is to "win", so you graced us with this anecdote. Someone disagreed and registered that opinion with a click of the down arrow. I thought I might be able to elucidate the particulars of this answer's unpopularity to the end of discussion or improvement—but I, too, was wrong. Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 20:34

With a head start you'll win. Stall-out and you'll lose.

Head Start: Win

Stall-Out: Lose

See also, stalled out of the gate.

(I can find no link for this phrase and I cannot find the colloquial definition of stalled out. I.e., I was going to ask her number but I stalled out. -please feel free to edit)


The tightest antonym in my opinion is simply slow start.

We had a head start.


We had a slow/bad/rough start.

but the other answers could be expressive depending on your application.

To use a more literal racing analogy, you could say that someone "broke poorly," which is apparently a horse racing term meaning to be slow out of the gate.


Willingly taking on a disadvantage or handicap in order to provide a 'more fair' competition is often referred to as Sandbagging.

  • It's not about being more fair, it's the exact opposite. Sandbagging means faking poor performance to disguise true potential, as your wiki link describes. Someone sandbagging expects to win.
    – nanoamp
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 11:05

"Dead last" or "Tail end" would be satisfactory phrases.

  • 3
    That describes the presumed result of the disadvantage, not the disadvantage itself.
    – Hellion
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 16:36

Head Start - Win

Burden - Lose



  1. a load, especially a heavy one.

In the proposed use burden is used metaphorically, so it is not an idiom, although both idioms and metaphors are figures of speech.

Note: I've edited my previous answer, which I had deleted, rather than submitting a new one because I don't see a way to submit a new answer (though I have more than 10 points, so I don't understand that).

  • I would respectfully disagree, for multiple reasons. A head start does not mean, or guarantee a win. Besides, a "head start" is a noun, "you snooze" is not. "You snooze, you lose" is a "saying". Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 15:08
  • @Greenonline good point, I'll delete the answer
    – amdn
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 15:11