Flip Turns for the Competitive Strokes

When you think turns think tight – they both start with the letter ‘T’, they both contain five letters. It’s easy to remember.

Fast turns are tight turns. ‘Tight’ means bringing the arms and legs in tight and close to to middle of the body. The swimmer have to bend at the knees, hips and elbows and make their body small and compact.

Following are links with explanations and illustrations for the turns of all competitive strokes. Click on the links and enhance your swimming.

Freestyle and Backstroke Flip Turns

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The swimmer approaches the turn at maximum speed. They tuck the chin to the chest to start the turn, kick the buttocks with the heels to get the body tumbling fast, then kick back at the wall with both feet with power and controlled aggression.

Freestyle flip turn

The key to fast turning is to approach the wall at maximum speed through the turn. The swimmer should put the chin on the chest (illustration b) then kick the heels to the buttocks (illustrations d, e) to ensure a fast turn. Once the feet contact the wall (illustration g), the swimmer should kick out powerfully, imagining they are kicking the wall backwards. On leaving the wall (illustration j), the swimmers should adopt an optimal streamline position and work the three thinks (illustrations k, l):

  • kicking fast underwater
  • kicking to the surface
  • kicking into the first stroke

Flip turn PROGRESSIONS for freestyle and backstroke

1. Snail float (mushroom float)

Standing in chest-deep water, the swimmer takes a deep breath, tucks the chin into the center of the collarbone, brings the forehead and knees close together, and ‘hugs’ the lower legs with the arms. A float is held for about 10 seconds. The upper back will be at the surface.

This float helps to emphasize the head position and compact body shape needed to develop a fast turn.

2. Tuck – bubble – roll

This step develops a forwards somersault in the water, when swimmers learn to maintain the snail shape, control breathing and get used to any dizziness that may be experienced at first. Dizziness generally ceases after a few somersaults.

Tuck – The swimmer tucks into the snail shape.

Roll – The instructor assists by slowly rolling the swimmer forwards, down and back to the surface in a full, vertical circle. This is achieved by placing one hand at the back of the swimmer’s neck and the other forearm across the lower legs.

Bubble – Swimmers exhale gently from the nose during the rotation, to prevent water entering the nose. The eyes are open.

At first many swimmers tend to lift the chin or let the legs unfold during rotation. The instructor’s hand positioning during the rotation helps reinforce these concepts.

Dry-land somersaults on a soft surface with assistance can help swimmers who have difficulties with this stage.

When swimmers feel relaxed throughout the rotation, they should be ready to move to the next progression.

3. Jump – tuck – bubble – roll

Swimmers begin to manoeuvre themselves through the somersault in chest-depth water as above. Momentum for the turn is developed from the jump.

The instructor should check that swimmers are a safe distance from the end of the pool, a minimum of 2 meters apart and in chest-depth water before they begin.

Swimmers quickly push off the bottom (jump), tuck into the snail position, roll themselves through the somersault and return their feet to the starting position when their heads break the surface. Some may need help at first to complete the rotation.

Instructors need to check that the chin remains tucked closely to center of collarbone throughout rotation. This is important for safety reasons as well as for efficient turning.

If swimmers are not rotating vertically it usually means the chin is being turned sideways towards a shoulder rather than being kept tucked forwards, or they are trying to turn laterally by twisting.

When the swimmer can hold the snail shape well they can leave their arms at their sides during the rotation.

When the instructor is satisfied that the swimmer can perform a compact turn in an open situation, this step is practiced facing the pool wall. One arm’s length is safe distance from the wall for a turn to be performed. This variation also leads into the next step.

The swimmer places the fingertips of one hand at surface level on the pool wall. The feet should be directly under the body; that is, the body is upright, not leaning forwards. Once the swimmer has established the distance from the wall, the hand is moved down to the thigh and jump-tuck-bubble-roll is practiced.

Instructors need to check the chin position and ensure that knees are kept together and ankles are not being crossed during the turn. Each turn begins by touching the wall.

When the swimmer is comfortable with this variation the next step can be introduced.

4. Pull – duck – tuck – feet on wall

In this progression the prompts change as the turn is developed towards a change of direction.

Pull – The extended hand initiates the turn by pulling powerfully to the thigh.

Duck – The head also contributes to the forward momentum by tucking the chin quickly into the collarbone.

Tuck – The knees are tucked quickly towards the forehead. This may be initiated by a mini dolphin kick.

Feet on wall – As the rotation is almost complete, and the swimmer can see up to the surface, the knees are extended slightly and the feet are placed on the wall just bellow the surface, toes up.

Knees and hips should be bent at approximately 90 degrees. No push-off is performed.

Some swimmers will need reinforcement of previous stages and some assistance at first. The instructor can assist with one hand at the back of swimmer’s neck and the other arm in front of the waistline. The hand on the neck assist the swimmer to rotate over the forearm, supporting them while the feet are placed on the wall. Once this progression is successful, swimmers can be instructed to kick their heels to their buttocks to develop speed into the rotation.

5. Pull – duck – tuck – feet on wall – streamline

This step teaches swimmers to finish the turn in a streamlined or hyperextended position on the wall, as a lead-in to pushing off the wall. Instructors my prefer to use a different prompt, for example ‘Arms behind ears’ , to develop the streamlined position.

Swimmers perform the previous progression, extending their arms behind their ears with one hand on top of the other after the feet have contacted the wall.

When the streamlining concept is achieved, a push-off on the back with about six kicks to the surface can be introduced.

As skill develops, swimmers should be encouraged to get the upper body streamlined just before the feet contact the wall, so prompts will change to pull – duck – tuck – streamline – feet on wall, followed by the push-off and kick on the back.

These final progressions develop the flip turn for freestyle and backstroke.

6. Pull – duck – dolphin – tuck

In this step, swimmers begin about 4-5 meters from pool wall or under the backstroke flags, perform the flip turn and kick back to the starting point. One arm is extended forwards beside the ear, hand palm down. The other arm lies along the body, thumb into the thigh. The eyes look at the wall and the water level is approximately on the hairline.

The swimmer pulls the extended hand powerfully back to lower thigh when the fingers touch the wall, ducks the chin quickly, dolphin kicks with feet together and under water, and tucks the knees to chest as the head points towards the pool bottom. The swimmer then continues as in the previous progression.

The small dolphin kick assists in keeping hips close to surface.

No breath is taken from start until swimmer has returned to surface.

Turning should be practiced on both arms.

When this step is familiar, the swimmer can rotate from the back onto the front during the kicking back to the surface, maintaining the streamlined arm position.

As skill develops, touching the wall before the pull can be dispense with. Swimmers learn to estimate their individual distance from the wall where they will initiate the pull.

They have pulled too late if there is less than 90 degrees at knees and hips, if the knees are apart, or if the feet are above surface level. Pulling too late results in the swimmer being unable to push off in a continuous action, or pushing off too deep.

If the pull is too early, or stroking and/or kicking decrease on approaching the wall, or the snail position is not maintained, the swimmer will experience difficulty in placing the feet or will miss the wall entirely.

When swimmers are familiar with the concept of not touching the wall, they can swim freestyle into the wall instead of kicking. Breathing at the wall before the turn should be discouraged. Swimmers should feel comfortable not breathing on the last three strokes, so their eyes can find the wall.

Finally, the turn can be altered slightly so advanced swimmers leave the wall o n their side in a streamlined position, rather than turning during the push-off.

Once the swimmer has completed pull-duck-dolphin, the head is pointing to the pool bottom and the back is to the wall.

The chin turns slightly to the preferred side and that shoulder dips down slightly. The legs are tucked quickly. The arms should be in the streamlined position.

The feet and body should be angled at not more than 90 degrees to the vertical, on placement of feet.

As swimmer kicks to surface only a quarter turn is required to return body onto front in readiness for first strokes.

As skill develops, the streamlined position on the side should be held until the break-out stroke is initiated by the arm closes to the pool bottom.

Swimmers should then be encouraged to complete at least two strokes before the first breath is taken.

In this turn, once the two final strokes to the wall are complete, the arms are snapped together into the streamlined position behind the ears, and pointing towards the next direction of swimming.

The momentum from the swimming approach and turn routine – pull-duck-dolphin – continues the lower body direction towards the wall.

As the head is down the twist is executed and the legs are tucked on their approach to the wall.

As soon as the feet contact the wall they should rebound as the hips and legs are forcefully extended.

The upper body is already positioned in the streamlined position, in readiness for the swimmer’s push-off on their side.

Lane line turns; Either standing or from a wall streamlined push the swimmer grabs the lane line with hands on top, thumbs underneath, and turns in a tuck position over the lane.

Specific instructions for backstroke turns

Swimmers should be taught to touch the wall on their back before standing, during backstroke kicking, drills or swimming.

When swimmers have progressed to pull-duck-tuck-feet on wall sequence in flip turn development, the backstroke concept can be introduced.

1. Touch – roll – pull – duck – tuck – feet on wall

After kicking on the back the swimmer will touch the wall at surface level, with their fingertips; that is, one arm is extended beside the ear, the other is down by the side. They will then roll horizontally towards the touching arm, and perform the turn routine described above.

Swimmers must be encouraged to kick powerfully until wall contact is made. Where possible, they should be made aware of the role of the backstroke flags or some other easily visible landmark at the 5 meter mark.

When they have learnt backstroke they can begin learning the complete turn. Before they begin they need to establish how many strokes they take from the 5 meter mark to the wall.

To give themselves time to develop rhythm and speed they begin swimming 8 or 9 meters from the pool wall. As their eyes pass under the flags or suitable 5 meter mark, they count their strokes until the hand (not arm) contacts the wall. Its is easier to count arm strokes during recovery above the water.

A strong kick must be maintained.

This step will need to be practiced a few times and the stroke count adjusted with help from the instructor, for example encouraging stronger or continuous kick, not looking for wall, keeping stroke normal length.

2. Back flip progression

Once stroke count is established swimmers are taught to take the last stroke face down. For example, inf a swimmer takes six strokes to finish on the wall, during a turn five strokes will be on the back on the sixth stroke will initiate pull-duck etc.

As the arm recovers for the sixth stroke it crosses to the opposite shoulder. The swimmer rotates to face down, which puts that arm into an extended position in front of the shoulder. The other arm remains beside the lower thigh. The turn is then initiated with pull-duck etc. into the streamlined position.

When this drill is familiar, swimmers can push off on the back and kick to the surface. A minimum of six kicks should be encouraged.

The turn is completed, stroking one arm powerfully to the leg to initiate the break-out just at the surface.

Breaststroke and Butterfly Open Turns

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The swimmer tucks hips, knees and feet up tight under the body. They get the feet on the wall fast and kick back at the wall with both feet with power and drive. The leading arm (first arm off the wall) is kept in tight by bending it at the elbow and keeping it in close to the side. The swimmer keeps the trailing arm tight by bending at the elbow and ‘saluting’ or pretending to ‘pick up the phone’ as the leave the wall.

PROGRESSIONS for breaststroke and butterfly turns

Open turns

Demonstrations by swimmers skilled in open turns will be helpful for beginners.

The progressions and actual turn mechanics are the same for these strokes. A simultaneous two-hand touch is required as per FINA (swimming’s international governing body) swimming rules. As soon as the turn is completed and the feet have left the wall, individual rules for the two strokes again apply.

The turn is broken into three basic components: approach to the wall, turn and pull-out.

Approaches to the wall should be practiced, so swimmers touch the wall on ‘a full stroke’ – that is, with arms extended into full recovery. Gliding into the wall causes swimmers to lose momentum for the change of direction.

Rather than gripping the pool deck, swimmers should be encouraged to touch the wall at surface level with the fingertips. The turns are easier to execute if the swimmer ‘leans’ on the wall with the fingertips, rather than the palms.


Touch – arm back – turn to side

This drill could be introduced on land at first, then practiced in the pool, with the feet on the bottom.

The swimmer touches the wall as described above. One hand remains ‘leaning’ on the wall, with the elbow very slightly bent. The eyes should continue to look at this hand throughout this drill.

The other arm, with elbow leading, is drawn quickly back past the rib cage and extended back to the next direction the body will take at completion of pull-out, at or just below the surface.

This has the effect of turning the body from front on to the wall to being slightly sideways. However, the swimmer should not turn sideways but try to go from front to back, with one elbow being pushed into the side (ribs) and palm upwards to the other hand (after leaving the wall), imitating an answering-the-phone action.

Approach and turn

Touch – arm down – feet on wall – streamline

In this drill the swimmer bring the knees to the chest and the feet to the wall in a pendulum motion.

As the feet approach the wall they ‘change places’ with the hand on the wall. The uppor body moves away from the wall, beginning to submerge on the side. The ‘leaning’ hand and arm, with the elbow bent about 90 degrees, slides behind the head and streamlines with the other arm. The eyes watch the ‘leaning’ hand until it leaves the wall. Feet and body are angled sideways on the all. Hips and knees are flexed.

The swimmer holds this position for 2 to 3 seconds before standing up.

Butterfly pull-out

The swimmer performs the turn progressions into the streamlined position, extending the legs and hips powerfully. As they leave the wall on their side, they use at least six dolphin kicks to rotate from the side to face down, in readiness for the first stroke.

Breaststroke pull-out

Pull – push – shrug – – hug – streamline

This drill can be learnt concurrently with the above approach and turn, but they are not combined until the swimmer is familiar with each, as these are complicated moves for beginners.

Once again, land practice is useful, particularly for younger swimmers.

The underwater pull after the start and the turn is the only time in breaststroke when the hands are allowed to pull through to the hips.

A butterfly-shaped pull is drawn with the hands and arms. The elbows are fully extended as the hands push back until the thumbs touch the thighs. The shoulders shrug towards the ears. Elbows hug the rib cage and hands are drawn forwards along the center of the body, back to the streamlined position. Hands are kept close to body.

Once land practice has developed some idea of the pull-out, swimmers can practice from a push-off in the water.

The legs remain straight but relaxed.

Pull – push – shrug – hug – streamline – kick

Once the swimmer is familiar with the longer pull, the kick can be added during land practice or in the water.

During the forward recovery of the arms, the feet are drawn up in readiness for the kick. As the arms snap into full extension, the feet kick forceful back and together. The chin should be kept tucked in close to the neck throughout the pull-out to maintain a streamlined compact body position. The face looks directly towards the bottom, but the eyes can see slightly forwards. The head should break the surface as the first surface stroke reaches its widest point.

Swimmers enjoy the challenge of holding a tennis ball with the chin while practicing streamlining off the wall, and later performing a pull-out, to establish that the head should not move up and down during the pull-out.

When the swimmer can manage the basics of the approach and turn and the pull-out, the two can be combined. As the legs are extended, driving the body off the wall, rotation from the side to face down is completed before the pull-out starts.

The swimmer should be able to start the first surface stroke as soon as the kick is completed.

Turning practice variations

A great practice is to learn to turn to both sides equally well. In training instructors have many ways of developing this skill:

  • In morning sessions swimmers turn to the left. In afternoon sessions they turn to the right.
  • Monday, Wednesday, Friday turn to the left; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday turn to the right.
  • Alternate turning each lap. First lap turn to the left, second lap turn to the right.
  • Alternate turning each effort. If doing 10×50 breaststroke, for example, swimmers turn left on the odd-number efforts (1,3,5,7,9) and to the right on the even-number efforts (2,4,6,8,10).

As with anything, the more a swimmer does ‘proper perfect prior practice’ of a skill the better they get at it. For variation, when swimmers are swimming long freestyle sets, they can explode the last three strokes into the wall breaststroke or fly, do a fast breast or fly turn, explode three strokes off the wall in breast or fly then go back to swimming freestyle.

There are countless variations to turning practices and drills. The only limit is the imagination of the instructor!

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