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Sport and Competition

Overcome Mistakes Like an Elite Athlete

A five-step framework to help you bounce back from everyday mistakes.

Key points

  • To bounce back from mistakes, first, acknowledge your frustration.
  • Visualize yourself mentally "fixing" the error and refocus on the next task.
  • Forgive yourself to avoid future fear of failure.
Jacob Rice/Unsplash
Source: Jacob Rice/Unsplash

As a perfectionist, I can think of absolutely nothing more stressful than making mistakes. My anxiety tricks me into thinking that making an error is the worst thing in the entire world. That making a mistake spells catastrophe.

Elite athletes think differently. To play at peak level, you have to play aggressively. You have to take risks, and you are going to make mistakes. It's unavoidable. Elite athletes understand that errors are part of high performance and a necessary way to learn new skills and strategies. Instead of spending time and energy trying to avoid mistakes, elite athletes learn how to bounce back quickly from errors.

The "4Fs" Strategy

Years ago I went to a conference and heard an insightful presentation by Dr. Nicole Detling, a renowned mental performance consultant. She discussed a strategy called the "4Fs" for bouncing back to high performance after making a mistake (originally described in Owens and Kirschenbaum, 1998).

I forgot about this technique for years but was reminded of it when I was helping a team quickly recover from mistakes. The 4Fs framework involves four steps after making a mistake: Fudge, Fix, Forget, and Focus. When I teach this framework, I use five steps: Frick, Finish, Fix, Focus, and Forgive.

Let me elaborate.


Ah, shoot. You just made a mistake. Bummer. Your immediate reaction is to say: "Frick!" Or some other version. It's important to allow yourself to feel the frustration in that moment. To say, "Ah, darn, that wasn't what I meant to do." Acknowledgment as a first step can help you actually move on (rather than pretending it didn't happen).


When you make a mistake, you often can't immediately stop and reflect. You're in the game. You need to finish up the movement, play, or inning. It's important to do more than just move through the motions. Give all effort possible for that last sprint, last play, or last period. Finish the way you would if it was your last performance.


Once you've finished the play, take a moment to mentally "fix" your mistake. Do this by visualizing yourself executing the skill/play/movement the way you wanted it to go. This serves two important purposes.

First, it helps promote new learning, because the next time you are in that situation, you will have mentally practiced what to do. Research supports a positive correlation between visualization and improved sports performance. Secondly, this mental fix helps you move on, which is a critical aspect of maintaining high performance after a mistake.


Once you've "fixed" the mistake in your mind, your brain has the space to move forward and refocus on the task at hand. Center yourself in the present moment. You can do this with some simple grounding exercises, like rooting both your feet into the ground (field, court, etc.) or taking a purposeful diaphragmatic breath with a long exhale.

Once centered, direct your attention to the next task. What do you want to do next in order to perform well? Tell your body exactly what you want to do to execute optimal performance. Focus your energy on that.


Let yourself off the hook. Beating yourself up about a past mistake doesn't change what happened. It makes it harder to get into a mental state that helps you perform your best. If you get into a pattern of self-criticism after mistakes, you'll develop a fear-of-failure mindset, instead of a growth mindset.

You're not making mistakes unless you're playing aggressively and taking chances. It's part of the highs and lows of being a competitive performer. Forgive yourself—you're a human being. You can't avoid the human condition


With this framework, you can bounce back from everyday mistakes just like an elite athlete. Use the 5Fs (Frick, Finish, Fix, Focus, and Forgive) anytime you perceive an error in performance—at work, in a presentation or interview, or in relationships.

We grow by taking risks and stretching ourselves. With this five Fs framework, you can live without letting the fear of failure hold you back. You can always fix the mistake in your head, forgive yourself, and forge forward.

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