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The NBA Eyes Sleep in Their Quest for Success

August 2017 - by Dr. W. Chris Winter

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Evidence that the science of sleep is slowly moving into the world of elite athletics is everywhere. The strategy of resting players during games seems to generate a tremendous amount of attention. Both the San Antonio Spurs and more recently the Cleveland Cavaliers have made headlines by resting their key players during games. While ticket holders obviously have an issue with paying to see lesser talent on the court, writers like Mitch Lawrence, a contributor to Forbes.com, feels that these decisions are the “NBA’s #1 problem.”

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The NBA’s schedule is grueling. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Washington Wizard’s March 2017 schedule. Multiple back-to-back games and lots of road travel will make their end of the season quite an uphill battle. To manage these obstacles, coaches have made the decision that from a performance perspective, rest is critical.

After years of working with teams to improve their players sleep and help manage their travel schedules, the National Basketball Association is finally taking notice. This December, the NBA came to a labor agreement with the National Basketball Players’ Association. Among the changes in contract terms and monetary compensation talk was the following nugget:

  • A shorter preseason, with no more than six exhibition games before the start of the regular season and an earlier start to the regular season, which should further reduce both back to back games and stretches of four games in five nights.

The NBA is looking at ways of reducing back-to-back games and reducing four game stretches in five nights.

Hallelujah!

Professional sports in this country are big business and for the athletes that constitute these leagues, their ability to perform at the absolute best of their abilities is critical for their success. This quest for success has generated a virtual arms race between clubs to see who can generate the most performance from their athletes. For these reasons, more teams are turning to sleep specialists than ever before. Today, sleep has taken its rightful seat at the table with nutrition and athletic training as stalwarts of performance maximization.

One of the biggest obstacles we face when we manage a team’s sleep is trying to ensure proper sleep within a schedule that mirrors that of an ER physician who is constantly on call at different shift times in the hospital!  With such specific schedules that have virtually no flexibility (an NBA team really can’t call in sick or be late to the arena), managing these sleep disturbances can be virtually impossible at times.

With the NBA working to reduce the schedule conflicts that create the most impossible sleep issues, it will significantly improve the ability for players to perform at their best, and will leave doctors like me free to work more on player nutrition, environmental lighting, sleep timing, and other modifiable factors to help them sleep and feel their best. If a player has improper lighting in his bedroom and Netflix streaming Game of Thrones all night long on his laptop, I can fix that. If he has back-to-back games in Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, I don’t have a great solution for that inevitable sleep disruption.

Kudos to you NBA. There is talk of the NFL “evaluating” the current Thursday night football games which often lead to shortened weeks and reduced recovery/preparation time. I hope we are seeing a trend towards an understanding that these schedules are harmful and result in a lesser product for the fan. Hopefully fans can keep this in mind when they show up and their favorite player is on the bench!

 

Photo credit: ThinkStock

About Dr. W. Chris Winter

Dr. W. Chris Winter is a Sleep Specialist, Neurologist, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. He is working with Soraa to help shed light in the link between blue light and sleep as he believes paying attention to the amount and quality of the light you expose yourself to during the day and night is probably the single biggest modifiable factor for getting a healthy night of sleep. Dr. W. Chris Winter has served as a consultant for several Major League Baseball teams including the San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. In addition to MLB teams, he has worked with the Chicago Bulls and is currently the sleep medicine specialist for NBA teams including the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Washington Wizards. Within the NHL, he has consulted with the Washington Capitals and currently works with the New York Rangers and consults with the United States Women's soccer team. Dr. Winter is board certified in sleep medicine by both the American Board of Sleep Medicine and by the American Board of Internal Medicine and board certified in Neurology by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He enjoys not only studying athletics, but is an avid triathlete himself.

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