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Time for bed: Why sleep is the key to peak performance

“If you’re in the Olympics and you don’t get a good night sleep, you’re not going to be on the podium.”

That’s how clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Breus, Ph.D., who specializes in sleep disorders, contextualized and described the importance of a good night sleep for athletes to achieve peak performance.

The impact sleep can have on health and daily productivity is something that the public is more aware of than ever. People are constantly advised that good nutrition and regular exercise are tied directly to sleeping well and vice versa. Even though many people depend upon that first cup of coffee to wake up in the morning, getting a good night sleep is far more beneficial to having a productive day. It’s the same for athletes too.

One might assume that all athletes have the same sleeping needs. However, according to Dr. Breus, there’s no one-size-fits-all for athletes to achieve good sleep. In addition, getting a lot of sleep doesn’t necessarily equate to good quality sleep.

“People’s sleep needs are individual,” said Dr. Breus, who is a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “It depends on different seasons, sports, and constraints. And it’s not just about quantity of sleep. It’s about quality of sleep too.”

According to Breus, an example of two sports which require different sleep needs are football and soccer. While both are primarily played in the fall season, a football player needs more sleep than a soccer player. Because there is a greater injury risk in football, a football player needs more recovery time and thus more sleep.

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One factor that has a significant impact on good sleep for athletes is the constant travel on a bus or plane, Dr. Breus said. But as a sleep doctor, Dr. Breus tries to put together sleep plans for athletes who he works directly with for when they are on the road.

“We try to look at schedule and strategic times to have them nap and get quiet time,” Dr. Breus said. “We create a travel sleep kit to help them get good sleep on the road. We also try to work with hotels too.”

Dr. Breus said that a big part of his job is educating athletes about the importance of a good night sleep in order to achieve peak performance.

“You have to educate them why it is important to athletes and performance, how it affects performance, and why it deserves attention,” Dr. Breus said.

According to Dr. Breus, performance anxiety and overtraining are the two leading causes if athletes are struggling to get good sleep. Performance anxiety typically happens the night before a game or match, while overtraining is the number one sign of insomnia. Therefore, good sleep habits are tied directly to an athlete’s training.

Dr. Breus has also found that poor sleep leads to reduced energy, accuracy, and memory, as well as increased reaction time. It can also lead to less effective decision-making and less recovery time.

When it comes to male and female athletes sleeping habits, Dr. Breus said that there are differences.

“Women are more receptive and intuitively know they need a good night sleep,” Dr. Breus said. “Women are less likely to be out and partying, while men like to tough it out.” Dr. Breus cites nightlife as a detriment to good sleep for athletes, specifically male athletes.

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Dr. Breus also said that younger and older players approach sleep very differently too. “Rookies don’t care about sleep, but veterans know partying is stupid and that good sleep is important.” And he said the education about good sleep to younger athletes requires a different approach.

“The body and hormones of younger athletes is different,” Dr. Breus said. “They’re like sponges. They just want to get better and are all for it. They want to learn and it’s great working with them.”

For the most part, Dr. Breus has found that athletes are good sleepers.

“Most athletes sleep fairly well,” said Dr. Breus, who noted that good nutrition also contributes to good sleeping habits. “They’re tired and beat after competition and are burning so much energy that they need to sleep. If athletes don’t sleep well, they burn out quickly.”

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