Taking a Page From Their Playbook

Posted by Lauren Zimmerman on

For professional athletes, their bodies are their sanctuaries. After all, they make their living off their body’s performance. Strengthening, conditioning, agility, speed, coordination – allare areas where athletes strive for perfection.

But what about sleep? No matter how many hours a professional athlete logs at the gym, not optimizing sleep can bring down every aspect of their performance. So it’s no surprise that many athletes and teams as a whole are taking measures to eliminate their player’s sleep debt.

NBA and NHL players’ schedules force them to adjust to the rhythm of being a night owl. Between night games, media interviews, and travel,these players oftendon’t hit the hay until well into the morning. Combine that with morning skates and shoot-arounds, they aren’t getting nearly enough sleep. So how do they compensate? They nap. “If you nap every game day, all those hours add up and it allows you to get through the season better,” says NBA player Steve Nash. Nash isn’t alone. Numerous NBA players – Lebron James, Grant Hill, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant – all swear by their afternoon siestas. “Naps are important. It refreshes you. It gets you ready for the competition,” declares Hill.

Just ask Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the ‘NBA Sleep Doctor’. He has consulted with the Boston Celtics, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. “Sleep is critical to maintaining performance, particularly reaction time,” says the good doctor. He added that biologically, the body rests best at night or in the midafternoon, thus enhancing the value of a nap. Theleague’s deputy commissioner Adam Silver adds that “everyone in the league office knows not to call players at 3 p.m. It’s the player nap (time?).”

The NBA isn’t the only one facing this issue head on. NHL player Andrew Ference uses the Zeo personal sleep coach every night. This device goes around his head, reading signals sent from Ference’s brain while he sleeps. It gives a grade each morning on the quality of his sleep session. He takes this information and uses it to improve a critical part of being an athlete that many athletes don’t think about. Ference notes that he “feels healthier and more alert” since he began tracking his sleep quality each night.

Fellow NHLerPatrik Elias aims for ninety minute naps, but will take what he can get. “Even if it’s just for a bit, it’s something I do.”

The MLB should take a page from the national basketball and hockey leagues. Professional baseball players know that their time in the majors is limited. So it’s no surprise that most of them try to play through any ailment, including sleep deprivation. As Washington National’s center fielder Denard Span put it, “I've had managers come up to me and say, 'If you're tired, let me know.' But I'm not going for that one."

They’ll do whatever it takes to keep playing. But in baseball, two key elements for players to possess are reaction time and fast judgment. And sleep is the number one culprit in taking those elements away.

Combined with the travel and length and frequency of games, baseball players are running on a short circuit where their sleep is concerned. How do they fix that? Naps for starters. Also having players report to the ballpark later than usual – a favored practice of Rays manager Joe Maddon. "There's a good chance we're overestimating the importance of preparation and underestimating the importance of rest," said Dr. Scott Kutscher, assistant professor of sleep and neurology at Vanderbilt.

You may be asking yourself whether any professional athlete is able to maintain a “normal” sleep schedule. The NFL is the closest thing to it. Most of their schedule resembles that of a traditional 9 to 5 worker. They play only once a week and practice during the day. However, organizations sometimes take drastic measures to ensure that their players are rock solid in the sleep department.

The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers tore through sleep studies - some of them commissioned by the U.S. military - looking for ways they might help their players improve performance through sleep.

After meeting with sleep specialists, the New York Jets pre-set all temperatures in the team hotel rooms to the recommended 68 degrees and encourage players to sleep in pitch-black rooms.

Let’s take a look at just how much sleep some of your favorite athletes get each night. Roger Federer secures 11-12 hours; Skier Lindsey Vonngets 9 hours; Usain Bolt and golfer Michelle Wie at 8-10 hours;Lebron James sleeps a wopping 12 hours; Venus Williams, Rafael Nadal and football playerMatt Slauson get 8 to 9 hours; Maria Sharapova sleeps 8-10; and Apolo Anton Ohno gets at least 8 hours.

Tiger Woods only sleeps 4-5 hours. Perhaps that is a contributing factor to the career decline he has started to see? Just a thought.

Players who get nine hours of sleep are more likely to react quicker, remember plays better, and generally maintain their health more consistently. It’s a wonder why more professional athletes aren’t endorsing mattresses, pillows, or sleep aids over athletic gear.

Looking at the amount of hours athletes are sleeping and comparing it to the 6.44 hours the average American adult sleeps, what can we learn from them?

It’s estimated that sleep deprivation costs U.S. companies $63.2 billion in lost productivity per year. So why don’t employers take a note from the world of professional sports? No matter the industry, employers want their workers to be sharp, focused, alert, and at their best, thus employers need to not just focus on their workers’ sleep quantity, but also quality.

So what can be done? Companies can employ late starts, early dismissals, and create nap rooms. Nationwide Planning Associates Inc. in New Jersey remodeled an unused closet with a recliner, a fountain, and a bamboo rug for employees to cat nap.

It’s a realistic concern. Not only does optimal sleep boost production, it also keeps employees ethical.

So how do you think companies should approach the sleep issue among their employees? Do you think the world of professional sports holds the answer?

About Lauren

Lauren Zimmerman has experience in social media, content creation, online community management, and evaluating analytics. She enjoys reading, watching movies, trying new restaurants, and spending time with family and friends. View all articles by Lauren
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