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Helping professional athletes perform better by sleeping better

When it comes to the care of pro sports players, sleep used to be treated like the neglected stepchild, often given little attention. In recent years, that’s been changing as top teams have taken steps to address sleep issues among their players. After all, the life of professional athletes typically includes intensive training regimens, rigorous playing schedules, and continuous travel (often across time zones)—a combination of factors that makes players susceptible to insufficient sleep or poor quality shut-eye. (Not surprisingly, excessive use of sleep medications is an increasingly recognized problem in the professional sports world.)

Fatigue can take a toll on players’ performance on the field or court. It can decrease their strength and stamina, their attentiveness and reaction time, and other critical skills. It could also affect the longevity of their careers: Research has found, for instance, that sleepier Major League Baseball players stay in the league for a shorter time.

Fortunately, the fatigue factor is increasingly being addressed among major league teams. Thanks to mounting evidence that better quality and greater quantity sleep can improve players’ performance, some teams are taking a proactive approach to getting their players the slumber they need.

  • The National Hockey League: This organization recently made policy changes that are intended to provide players with better rest during the season. These include having at least four days off per month during the season and having a minimum of a nine-hour break between a flight’s arrival at an airport and the start of the next practice while players are on the road.
  • The New York Jets: The football teamhired sleep experts to work with players on upgrading their personal slumber habits.
  • National Basketball Association: The players in this league are starting to make a habit of napping on game day. Charles Czeisler, M.D., the director of the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School—and chairman of the board of directors of our very own National Sleep Foundation, has consulted with numerous NBA teams including the Boston Celtics, the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Minnesota Timberwolves about the benefits of getting enough sleep. He emphasizes the strategic use of napping and the importance of sleeping well after a game, practice, or other training event to enhance muscle recovery.

The idea that sleep is a natural performance-enhancer is gaining traction in the professional sports world, and players are being encouraged to make getting good quality zzz’s a priority. It’s a message non-athletes can benefit from, too.