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by Laurie Hug

October 26, 2015

Innovative use of a paddle can help with body position in freestyle

Last year at the USA Triathlon Art & Science of Coaching Symposium, the High Performance Director for USA Pentathlon, Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas (aka Dr. G.), presented his favorite freestyle drill. It soon became my favorite as well. I call it “Paddle-On-Head Drill,” but I have seen it referred to as the “Top Hat Drill” elsewhere, too. It helps swimmers maintain a straight head and body position during freestyle.

To perform the drill, each swimmer will need one paddle. I favor the FINIS Agility paddle because the contoured section seems to make it easier to keep the paddle on the head. Swimmers simply place the paddle at the crown of the head and start swimming, pushing the paddle in front of them. The water pressure should keep the paddle on (in front of) the head. If swimmers lift their heads or move around too much, the paddle will fall away. 

When swimmers start doing this drill, they may find the paddle falls away every time they breathe. Therefore, swimmers need to keep their heads in line with their spines and take quick breaths, without lifting their heads, in order to keep the paddle in place. Some folks like to take five or six strokes before attempting a breath. Eventually it becomes easier to take the breath.

For a fun challenge, once swimmers have mastered breathing with their paddles, have them try doing flip turns. It may seem impossible at first, but if they race into the wall and focus on feeling the pressure of the paddle on the head, most should be able to do it.

To make the drill a little easier, use fins. Going at a faster pace helps keep the paddle in place. When first practicing this drill, it also helps if swimmers can each have their own lane. When others are sharing a lane, the water is often choppier, which can make keeping the paddle on the head harder.

My favorite set using this drill is as follows:

  • 1 to 4 rounds of:
    • 1 x 200 freestyle wearing a snorkel, fins, and paddles
    • 1 x 100 paddle-on-head drill wearing fins

Using the snorkel helps swimmers keep a straight body position with the head in line with the spine. Subsequently, this makes it easier to hold that position for the 100 drill.

The Paddle-On-Head Drill is great for those who tend to lift the head when breathing. Lift the head and the paddle will fall; maintain a straight body position with the head in line with the spine and it should stay in place. It’s a fun drill to help spice up your workouts!


  • Technique and Training


  • Training Aids
  • Paddles
  • Drills