There are 4 things we as humans can’t live without:
You’d never say, “I’m gonna take half the number of breaths I need” or “I’m not eating or drinking for fuel during competition”. It’s ridiculous. But we’re always willing to compromise our sleep. It’s quite literally the greatest tool we have to enhance recovery, increase stress resistance, and maximize our bodies adaptive abilities.
A February 2022 journal article published in Exercise Physiology outlined the takeaways from 75 studies examining sleep. The collective findings demonstrate what we already know: sleep is a crucial element to peak performance.
While you know sleep is important, you might under-appreciate how profound the differences are between well-slept athletes and those who struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep — bar none — might be the best performance enhancer on the planet.
When it comes to performance, training and execution they can be broken down into 2 occurrences.
- Stress- Anything we’re exposing our body/mind to
- Adaptation- How our body/mind recovers and adjusts to that stressor
The stress part we have no problem with. We see it mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally, but what separates those that execute at high levels, and those that are the greatest performers is the ability to adapt. This is where HRV comes in handy, as the language our body is communicating to us with based on adaptation.
How Stress and Adaption Manifest Themselves
In young athletes across various sports, sleeping less than five hours per night plummeted their neuro-cognitive abilities. What does that mean exactly? Their reaction time decreased and their memory worsened, leading to worse athletic and academic outcomes. Oftentimes, we only look at the end results and come to the conclusion that “we’re not performing” or ”we’re training too hard”, when in reality, we’re not recovering hard enough. We’re not overtrained, we’re under recovered.
A lack of sleep even increases the risk of injury and illness. In one study, athletes that slept less than 8 hours per night were 75% more likely to suffer a soft tissue injury (non-contact related) than those that slept more than 8hrs per night. This isn’t because sleep prevents injuries, but because sleep enhances the body’s ability to adapt to stress. When the body adapts, it recovers faster. When a body recovers faster, it can take on more stress and perform at higher levels.
The evidence above isn’t new, but the practices in place by athletic programs around the country are in disagreement to what we know is true. Why? Because neurologically we are drawn towards more — drawn towards pushing harder (because more is better). So we consciously have to become aware to counteract that tendency (which we lay out below).
When Athletes Track Sleep, They Improve Sleep
“Monitoring sleep is crucial to understand responses to training and readiness” the authors of the study write, citing research which shows another well-understood concept: that what gets measured gets managed.
There is a caveat to improving sleep — it’s not like the other modalities we as coaches can implement into our program.
Sleep isn’t an exercise we can throw into our workouts, nor is it a supplement we can hand them on the way out the training door. It requires holistic lifestyle interventions. And that’s why tracking it becomes so important.
A wearable device is a great start, and that’s why wearables are integrated into the OWN IT Coaching system. However, simply knowing sleep data doesn’t provide athletes with concrete steps for substantial change.
The authors of the study go short of suggesting concrete steps, but they affirm the importance of “sleep hygiene strategies,” to improve sleep (and therefore, performance).
Coaching Plus Tracking Shows Stronger Outcomes
A November 2021 study found that coaching in conjunction with tracking maximized improvements in performance overall. And, in this article examining the study, the coaching used in the research was modest, texting check-in interventions.
With OWN IT Coaching, we use the data to inform us about how to make specific, concrete interventions. When it comes to improving sleep, these are individualized to each athlete.
Some athletes need support with their pre-bed routine. Others need to focus on their first 90 minutes of the day. For others still, it’s not even about sleep directly; the problem is that they always put their schoolwork off until the last minute, and wind up sacrificing a couple hours of sleep a couple times a week. With this last example, we can see the importance of coaching combined with the data to make real change.
If you talk to your athletes and work with them, informed by the data and using it as a jumping off point, that’s when athletes can make substantial changes to their sleep routines. For example, often athletes don’t understand how to set up their environment for sleep. We can take them through a simple checklist that includes keeping it cool at night, turning off all the lights, and turning all devices off or on airplane mode.
Or perhaps we’ll discover that the problem is they don’t get light and movement in the morning, which sets their circadian rhythm up to improve sleep in the evening. Regardless of the exact intervention, we start with the data and use it to begin a conversation with the athlete about how they can improve their recovery.
By going through this, we can drastically improve their recovery and performance.
On the field, in the classroom, and in all facets of their life. As we’ve also discussed at length, health is the foundation of performance.
How to Manage Sleep With Competition Schedules
One of the most common roadblocks to athletes improving their sleep is that most game times are in the evening.
This is made even worse at varying levels, all the way from the pros to youth, where athletes practice at night.
In vain of changing the schedule, by understanding the principles of improving sleep, tracking data, and providing individualized strategies to improve, athletes can make the most of a less than ideal situation.
In fact, this is commonly a part of what we do in our coaching program. The principles of improving sleep aren’t so complicated. At the end of the day (yes, literally), it’s about getting into a parasympathetic state.
However, the strategies to do this vary based on the situation. Our work with teams involves providing coaches with a “parasympathetic buffet” to support their athletes right after evening competition. This includes various options. For example, some kind of deep breathing, meditation, or massage can go a long way to relaxing and regulating the nervous system for sleep.
Some athletes prefer a post-training foam rolling routine. Others preferred to have a deep breathing protocol performed after training. Some athletes found meditation helpful, and even went as far as to invest in a Core by Hyperice (we don’t receive financial compensation from them), which provides guided meditation and synced vibrations to help enter a parasympathetic state. One athlete keeps it in their locker at the athletic facilities for this exact purpose.
As coaches, we work with them to find the strategies that will work for them.
Another challenge with late night competition is planning nutritionally. A big meal not only takes a bit of time to eat, but digestion interferes with melatonin production, delaying sleep. For some athletes, we helped them create custom smoothie recipes that they enjoyed and could make, custom for their nutritional needs, shopping budget, and more.
I’ve written much more in-depth about this topic in this article for SimpliFaster. If that’s a position you’re in, that article is helpful.
The Principles Are The Same
This example of evening training paints a portrait of the real-world challenges of coaching, and in particular, helping athletes shift their life habits. In many ways, the work we do with OWN IT is about creating healthier, more resilient humans, which will help your athletes in all areas, both right now and beyond as they move forward in life.
This is what we’re passionate about: combining technology with the human side of coaching to help everybody from athletes to business leaders own all areas of their life.
To learn more about OWN IT, you can hear what other programs have to say like this D1 football program.
If you think your program needs to change the way you’re tracking and impacting your athletes’ sleep, schedule a call with us.