How a Sled Dog Team Works

Sled Dog teams have been around since 1000 BC and are still used today; not just for racing, but in the place of snowmobiles and helicopters for rescue operations. They are even able to travel for 6-8 hours across the roughest arctic conditions in the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.

Typically, the sled dog team ranges from 12-16 dogs, each with a very specific role and sequence. Each team has 2 lead dogs, 2 swing dogs, 6 team dogs, and 2 wheel dogs.

The lead dogs are critical to the function of the team, as they set the pace, keep the other dogs in sync, and take verbal direction from the musher. They are highly intelligent dogs that use their sense of smell and their sense of touch to detect danger and stay on snow-covered paths, respectively.

The swing dogs are critical to the remaining team members, as they help the lead dogs form a nice arc on the turns.

The team dogs are the muscle, with the most pulling power.

The wheel dogs are next to the sled. They are some of the heaviest dogs, and can withstand the force of the starting and stopping of sled. Sometimes, dog positions are switched during the race, because some dogs make better leaders in different weather and terrain conditions.

What you might call the driver is actually the musher. Mushers are known for their ability to battle harsh conditions by being incredibly resourceful and handy, sometimes having to wait out a storm, repair the sled, and even fight off wild animals. They have a reputation for building strong connections with their dogs by putting the health of their dogs first, even to go as far as feeding them before they feed themselves, and making sure they each have a warm bed.

What Sled Dogs Can Teach Sports Teams

“Leaders create leaders by passing on responsibility, creating ownership, accountability, and trust.”

–James Kerr in Legacy

A sled dog team provides many great lessons for us ins sports with similarities in roles and function. Great captains operate like lead dogs, out front, on the look for trouble, and keeping the team on the path. Every team has their team dogs who follow more than they the lead.  And on great teams, you do need a few wheel dogs, the players who show up for the everyday grind without the promise of any spotlight or playing time. Obviously, a great coach is like the musher, building strong relationships with their team and putting the team’s well-being above their own!

But who is leading the team? Well when it comes to the Alaskan Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the biggest competition in the world, the strongest teams are often defined by the strength of the top lead dogs. Great lead dogs are a product of great training, and trust between them and their musher.

The musher does not steer his team like many would imagine. Instead he gives guidance and listens to his lead dogs, because they have been trained to be out front feeling and smelling, using their senses to understand the terrain and keep the team on the path. It is the responsibility of the musher to know the big picture of where they are headed, but it is the lead dogs and swing dogs that keep them on the path.

If you study two of the most successful sporting teams in the world – UNC Women’s Soccer and The New Zealand All-Blacks Rugby team – you will be able to see some strong similarities between them and the musher. They train their players to become leaders, and there is a transfer of responsibility over the course of a season.

Empower Your Players to Lead

“In four years, all of our players are basically ready to coach, because they not only understand the game, they have an understanding of how to verbally explain the game.”

–Anson Dorrance in Training Soccer Champions

Dorrance is one of the most successful sports coaches of all time with 21 National Championships. He believes in teaching his women to understand the game, but to coach it. He trains and equips them to get out and lead, not just follow!

As outrageous as it may seem to some, on a weekly basis, The New Zealand All-Blacks Rugby team hands over the coaching responsibilities to the players, author James Kerr describes this process in his book Legacy,

“The structure of the working week epitomizes this management model: the Sunday evening review meetings are facilitated by the coaches, though significant input comes from the on-field leadership. Then, over the course of the week, you see a gradual handing over of responsibility and decision-making. By Thursday, the priorities, intensity levels, and other aspects are all ‘owned’ by the players. By the time they play on Saturday, the players have taken over the asylum. ‘I’m just a resource,’ says Henry [The Head Coach].”

But why would we, as coaches, pass on the leadership responsibility? Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, one the world’s top creative organizations, says, “A team of ‘followers’ is immediately on the back foot. A team of leaders steps up and finds a way to win.”

3 Strategies to Move from a Coach-Led Team to a Player-Led Team

1. Ask great questions.

Dorrance, like many other great coaches, believes in the Socratic method of teaching. Instead of standing up, lecturing the team about strategy, and telling them what to do, you can instead engage them with strong questions, and instill the possibility that they will be called upon to answer the question.  For example, if you are a soccer coach, then instead of telling Mia or the team where she should be positioned in a certain situation, ask the team where they think she should be positioned. After you ask the question, call on Mia or one of her teammates. Now, instead of just telling Mia, you have taught Mia and the team by allowing everyone to think about the question and come up with the correct answer.

2. Let them go first.

Whether it is before a game, at half-time, after a game is over, during scouting reports, and in the film room, remember that you do not always have to be the first person to speak! Let your team offer their thoughts and analysis. Just like the lead dogs on a sled dog team, they are the ones out front seeing, feeling, and smelling what is going on!

3. Let them lead. 

Let them run a drill, a practice, or a film session. You, like the All-Blacks Coach Graham Henry, are still coaching when you are acting as a resource for them to help guide the team by seeing the big picture. On the sled dog team, it is up to the lead dogs to keep the others on the path ahead. The musher is not constantly talking them through every turn! A player’s perspective and perception, while not always right, is incredibly important to listen to and understand.

Empowering > Overpowering

“I can’t play the game for you!”

I have said this line before, and I know that other coaches have said it as well! The truth is that not only can we not play the game for them, we shouldn’t even want to. Still, I see coaches over-coaching so much that I think if they could throw on a jersey, they would. We need to accept our role, and accept the truth that to be a great leader, we must give control to the people we are leading.

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