The Freestyle Flip Turn: What you need to know

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

I will devote the next five articles to performing the freestyle flip turn. Because more time is gained or lost on the turns than in any other part of a freestyle race, it would seem reasonable that coaches would spend a considerable amount of time trying to perfect the turn. They don’t. Like so many aspects of swimming technique, it is much easier to do a turn wrong, but it is also much slower. Performing a fast flip turn requires core strength, discipline, attention to detail, some risk, great streamlining ability and a very good underwater dolphin kick.

It also requires knowing what to do, so over the next several weeks, I will break down the flip turn into four components: the approach, the flip, the underwater and the breakout. Each of these components is important and I commonly see mistakes made in all four of them, often by the same swimmer. Performing great turns also requires practice. Once you learn the correct technique, it is one thing to do a good turn when you are fresh. It is quite another to do that same turn when you are exhausted on the final lap of a race. As the legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi, once said, fatigue makes cowards of us all.

I must also confess to you that, as a swimmer, I was one of the worst offenders. I rarely did a legal turn in practice and made a habit of doing lazy turns over and over again. As a result, my turns in races were poor and I often lost considerable ground against other, more disciplined swimmers who trained hard on their turns. Perhaps that is why, as a coach, I am more meticulous and more emphatic about our Race Club swimmers doing their turns well. I do not want any of our swimmers losing ground on turns, so we work on them in nearly every session.

Finally, it is important to understand that the turn needs to be customized for each swimmer, depending on the speed of the underwater dolphin kick. If every swimmer could kick like Michael Phelps or Natalie Coughlin, then we would have all of them stay underwater off the wall for seven or eight kicks, but they can’t. Most swimmers are considerably slower underwater with dolphin kick and streamline than they are on the surface swimming freestyle, so it makes no sense for them to stay underwater any longer than they have to. We will discuss the optimization of the underwater component in more detail later.

Whatever turn technique works best for each swimmer, it must be practiced over and over again in order to perfect it. One of my favorite sets for doing that is racing swimmers from 10 to 15 yards off the wall and back, while deducting points or time for any mistakes I catch them making. Another way is to reward your swimmers for doing good turns by allowing them to get out of part of set, rather than yelling at them for doing their turns poorly. Rewarding good behavior or practices is often more effective than criticizing bad behavior or practices.

As the Byrds once sang years ago,

To everything….turn, turn, turn

There is a season….turn, turn, turn

And a time for every purpose under heaven

This swimming season, take the time to improve your turns as your purpose.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

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4 Comments on "The Freestyle Flip Turn: What you need to know"

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Gail Cafferata

I am so enjoying your posts! I am the aunt of one of your freshman swimmers, a masters swimmer as a hobby, and a behaviorist by trade,. Your approach of recognizing the positive is not only extremely effective but also an evidenced based strategy for behavior dhange in my old. Great attitude!!

Nice club

It’s great that you’re tackling flip turns. A girl at my pool does them for her whole set, and her stroke is perfection! ! She makes it look easy. My question is does flip turning ever get “easy”? Does it become second nature? Will I ever stop dreading them completely and prefer them to “tap and go”?