It was great to see this news of the New York Jets’ recent decision to make sleep specialists part of their in-season training program. According to the news reports, sleep experts have worked directly with players, teaching them strategies for getting more and better sleep amid a physically and mentally demanding schedule of practice and games. In addition, the coaching staff has adjusted players’ schedules to be more sleep friendly, including starting their work day 90 minutes later, and shortening the duration of some meetings and practices. Players who spoke to reporters seemed enthusiastic about the team’s newfound attention to sleep. “It was awesome,” one player told Fox Sports. “You still get the same amount of work in, but you get to sleep in a bit more and get off your feet a bit more.”
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I think this is a pretty smart and forward-thinking strategy for a team to take. Sleep can play a big role in the competitive world of pro sports. Among these elite athletes, big rewards often come from gains measured in small increments: shaving a couple of seconds off running speed, improving agility and reaction time by fractions of a second, drawing on an ever-so-slightly deeper reserve of energy and power for a block or tackle. Here are some examples of research that has shown how sleep can improve athletic performance:
- These studies of pro players in the National Football League and Major League Baseball found a link between career longevity and levels of daytime sleepiness in players. In the NFL, athletes who reported lower levels of daytime tiredness were more likely to be retained by the teams that drafted them than those who reported feeling more tired during the day. Baseball players who reported higher levels of daytime tiredness were more likely to drop out of the league than their better-rested counterparts.
- A study of college basketball players found that increasing nightly sleep amounts resulted in improvements to on-court performance. The college ball players in the study—many of whom were found to be sleep deprived at the study’s outset—were put on an expanded sleep schedule that included a goal of 10 hours of sleep per night. (Players’ actual average nightly sleep during the study period was 8.5 hours, right in the zone of the recommended daily sleep amounts.) After 5-7 weeks on this new sleep schedule, researchers found that players had improved their running speeds, shooting accuracy, and reaction times. They also demonstrated less daytime fatigue and improved moods during practices and games.
And what about the rest of us? We may not be taking to the football field or basketball court every day, but the underlying relationship between better sleep and higher functioning applies in different ways to all of us. We’re learning more all the time about how sleep can improve not only physical but cognitive performance, and also about the negative consequences of disrupted sleep on performance:
- This study used word-pair memorization exercises to demonstrate a link between sleep and memory retention. People who slept shortly after learning new information were more likely to retain that information than those who delayed sleep after learning.
- Sleep deprivation has frequently been shown to have a negative effect on reaction time. Results from this study indicate that a single night of sleep deprivation can significantly impair reaction time. And according to this research, sleep deprivation was associated with increased levels of confusion, hostility, anger and depression, as well as slowed reaction times. These changes to reaction time, as well as mood and personality, can have truly wide-ranging effects on how we function in daily life, affecting our judgment and decision making, putting strain on relationships at work and at home, and putting us at greater risk for accident or injury.
- Forgoing sleep for the sake of being “productive”—something most of us have probably done at some point—appears to wind up interfering with performance, not enhancing it. I wrote not long ago about this study, which showed high school students who stayed up late to study were more likely to have academic problems in school the following day.
It won’t surprise me to see more sports teams adopting a sleep-better-to-perform-better strategy similar to the one the Jets have put into play this season. But using sleep to improve performance isn’t just the purview of athletes—we can all benefit from making sleep a fundamental part of everyone’s game plan.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™