This time, you snooze, you win

Packer Plus - - News - Pete Dougherty Colum­nist

Green Bay — When you ask Aaron Rodgers what he does off the field to help his play at quar­ter­back and, he hopes, ex­tend his ca­reer into his 40s, he of course talks a lot about work­ing out and eat­ing a healthy diet.

But he also usu­ally, and ca­su­ally, men­tions another fac­tor: sleep.

Tom Brady, too. The New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back has been quoted in re­ports say­ing that dur­ing the sea­son he tries to get nine hours of sleep a night, and in the off-sea­son 81⁄ 2.

The NFL’s two best quar­ter­backs are onto some­thing, though they might not know ex­actly why.

“I’m not an ex­pert on (sleep),” Rodgers said af­ter a Green Bay Pack­ers prac­tice this past week. “I just know that’s when your body heals it­self bet­ter. I (also) know there are a lot of cog­ni­tive is­sues with peo­ple who are in­som­ni­acs.”

In fact, as sleep science has ad­vanced the last two decades, re­searchers have found that not get­ting enough sleep can com­pro­mise any and every mea­sure of phys­i­cal and men­tal health. That very much goes for ath­letes, who need sleep to, among other things, ac­cel­er­ate re­cov­ery and en­hance their mo­tor skills.

“If you don’t snooze, you lose,” is how Matthew Walker, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist who spe­cial­izes in study­ing sleep at Rodgers’ alma mater, the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, put it in a sec­tion de­voted to ath­letes in his re­cently re­leased book, “Why We Sleep.”

Pro­fes­sional sports teams, look­ing for every edge, have been em­pha­siz­ing sleep for a while, though prob­a­bly not to the de­gree they should, at least in the NFL.

Coach Mike McCarthy, for in­stance, pri­or­i­tizes rest and re­cov­ery in the Pack­ers’ prac­tice and meet­ing sched­ules. That in­cludes de­vot­ing Fri­days to hav­ing play­ers take part in a va­ri­ety of re­cov­ery tech­niques such as mas­sage ther­apy and hot-and-cold tubs.

McCarthy also sets his meet­ing and prac­tice sched­ule so play­ers can get plenty of sleep. For in­stance, the day af­ter a night game, play­ers usu­ally aren’t due at the team’s fa­cil­i­ties un­til around noon at the ear­li­est. From all ap­pear­ances, McCarthy and his sup­port staff em­pha­size sleep for play­ers mainly be­cause of its re­cov­ery com­po­nent. But re­cent re­search has shown that sleep helps ath­letes in more ways than that, which we’ll get into shortly.

But first, at the Pack­ers’ two prac­tices dur­ing or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties that have been open to re­porters, I asked a few play­ers about the pri­or­ity they put on sleep and what they know about it. All were aware of its im­por­tance, but their knowl­edge as to why it’s im­por­tant was lim­ited.

“That’s prob­a­bly where I fall,” Rodgers said.

De­fen­sive line­man Mike Daniels said the Pack­ers have sleep, re­cov­ery and hy­dra­tion re­minders posted around the foot­ball fa­cil­ity. He also said that when he played at the Univer­sity of Iowa, a sign posted on the exit from the locker room re­minded play­ers to “get your eight hours.”

“The say­ing is, if you want to get stronger, sleep,” Daniels said. “That’s when you build mus­cle. That’s when you re­cover.”

Just a few weeks ago, backup tight end Lance Ken­dricks watched a Joe Ro­gan video pod­cast in which Walker was pro­mot­ing his book. Ken­dricks is a night owl, which means he gets about 71⁄ hours of sleep at most when­ever the team is in ses­sion, but he found Walker’s in­ter­view com­pelling enough to start tak­ing an hour­long nap most days.

“I know that you need some­where be­tween seven and nine hours of sleep,” Ken­dricks said. “… (Walker) also talked about if you don’t get enough sleep you’re ac­tu­ally dam­ag­ing your brain. I didn’t know that, ei­ther.”

There’s not space here to go into the to­tal­ity of Walker’s book, though I highly rec­om­mend it. It’s an eye-opener. You think you op­er­ate well on six hours or less of sleep a night? Chances are, you’re delu­sional.

The ac­cu­mu­la­tion of sleep re­search over the years strongly sug­gests that less than 1% of the pop­u­la­tion — yes, that’s less than 1% — ac­tu­ally func­tions well on six hours or less. The rest say they’re not im­paired, but tests show they’re kid­ding them­selves.

I won­der if NFL coaches and their as­sis­tants will ever ac­cept this. For them sleep de­pri­va­tion is a badge of honor, and con­vinc­ing them it’s com­pro­mis­ing their per­for­mance, well, good luck. But that’s a whole sub­ject unto it­self.

Mean­while, Walker’s book de­votes only about eight pages to ath­letes, but those eight pages say plenty.

Most sur­pris­ingly, re­cent stud­ies, in­clud­ing those by Walker, show that deep sleep is cru­cial to learn­ing phys­i­cal skills, whether it be play­ing an instrument or a sport.

The stud­ies are based in part on re­sults of brain scans and de­vices that mea­sure brain waves while sub­jects sleep. They show not just that sleep in gen­eral is cru­cial to learn­ing skills, but more specif­i­cally, the fi­nal two hours of an eight-hour sleep cy­cle are the most con­ducive to trans­fer­ring mo­tor mem­o­ries from the con­scious brain to cir­cuits that work sub­con­sciously. In other words, that help make skills au­to­matic, which is what sports are all about.

“Prac­tice does not make per­fect,” Walker writes. “It is prac­tice, fol­lowed by a night’s sleep, that leads to per­fec­tion.”

Some play­ers seem to have picked up on this in­tu­itively. Cor­ner­back Davon House said that when he’s strug­gling with some­thing on the field, he med­i­tates on it when he goes to bed.

“You’ll (then) think about it while you’re asleep for some rea­son,” he said,


Pack­ers tight end Lance Ken­dricks is a night owl, but will start tak­ing a nap to make sure he gets enough sleep.

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