The athletes who rise to the level of professional sports in the United States are an elite bunch, some of the most physically gifted players on the planet. As difficult as it is to reach this level of sport, once they’ve been drafted into the pro leagues, their work is still just beginning. Maintaining a career in professional sports is intensely competitive and difficult, requiring serious dedication to developing and maintaining their skills.
Along with speed and agility, scoring prowess and defensive might, should an athlete’s sleep ability be a factor in determining his or her value as a player?
According to two recent studies, this may just be a pretty good strategy. Sleep researchers at Virginia’s Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center have established a connection between career longevity and stability and levels of daytime sleepiness among athletes in two professional sports — football and baseball.
Both studies, which were presented at SLEEP 2012, an annual meeting of the Association of Professional Sleep Societies, investigated links between sleep and the staying power of careers for athletes in the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Researchers found that athletes in both leagues who reported experiencing high levels of daytime sleepiness were more likely to have shorter careers — and less likely to stay with the teams that originally drafted them — than players who were better rested, and reported feeling less tired during the day.
When studying NFL athletes, researchers included 55 players from around the league, all of whom went from college-level football through the draft process to professional teams. Players completed a questionnaire that enabled researchers to evaluate the athletes’ levels of daytime tiredness. They found that athletes who scored higher for excessive daytime tiredness — those who were more tired during the day — were less likely to stay with the original team that drafted them than players who scored at lower levels for excessive daytime tiredness. Among players who reported high levels of daytime sleepiness, 38 percent stayed with their drafting team, compared to 56 percent of better-rested players.
To study baseball players, researchers presented these athletes with the same questionnaire on sleep and daytime tiredness. They included 40 pro baseball players from MLB teams. Researchers discovered that those players who reported the highest levels of daytime sleepiness had significantly higher dropout rates from the league. Ballplayers who reported feeling more tired during the day had dropout rates in the range of 57-86 percent, compared to average MLB drop out rates, which are in the range of 30-35 percent.
This is important information for team organizations, players, and coaches: Protecting and encouraging sleep among these pro athletes may be one way to enhance and even prolong players’ career-long levels of performance.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen evidence that sleep can have a powerful effect on athletes’ performance. We know from athletes’ own discussions of their training regimens that a successful training schedule often includes early bedtimes and careful attention to rest and recovery. And this 2011 study of college basketball players found that additional sleep resulted in significant improvements to speed and shooting skills, as well as diminished feelings of daytime tiredness and improvements in players’ moods and sense of well-being related to their sport.
It’s worth noting that in this college basketball study, researchers found many of the athletes suffering from chronic sleep deprivation at the study’s outset. I’d be willing to guess that with their demanding practice and game schedules, combined with near-constant traveling, many professional athletes are in a similarly sleep-deprived state. This latest study gives us reason to wonder: How much better, longer — and healthier — could our pro athletes play if that made sleep a regular part of their training regimen?
We study the health and performance of our professional athletes for many reasons. Pro sports are both big business and an important part of our culture. Leagues have a lot of incentive to push their players to play at their best — they also have a responsibility to their players’ health, and to ensure that their athletes are playing as safely as possible. In addition, what we learn from people who push their bodies to extremes can deliver lessons and insights for the broader population — those of us who don’t tackle and block against 300-pound guys for a living, or chase down 100-mph fastballs with speed and lightning-quick footwork.
Making sleep a priority — getting your seven to eight hours of sleep per night, every night, and addressing sleep problems before they become chronic or serious — can help you protect your health and your longevity on your field of play, whatever that may be. You don’t have to have a career lived out on AstroTurf or in a stadium to want to work — and live — well for a good, long time. Remember that sleep is one of your most powerful tools for helping you stay at the top of your game.
Michael J. Breus, PhD