Sleep specialists and the NFL – Gaining the edge with ZZZZ’s

Dr. Chris Winter is the Medical Director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital and has practiced sleep medicine and neurology in Charlottesville, Virginia, since 2004. He has been involved with sleep medicine and sleep research since 1993.  He’s worked directly with the San Francisco Giants of Major League Baseball and the Oklahoma City Thunder of the National Basketball Association.  Chris and I did work together with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League and I’ve become a disciple of his work.  I’ve invited Dr. Winter to write this post for the Football Educator.

2012 Regular Season – A lot of stories already

The NFL season is under way, and with three weeks in the books, there has been plenty to talk about.  Since Dallas won the opening game over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants a mere 19 days ago, there has been constant talk about replacement referees, rookie quarterback standout performances, continued fall-out from Bountygate, and Tim Tebow’s quest to appear shirtless in every major magazine by the end of the season.  With all of this happening, what would one of the league’s most outspoken coaches have to Rex Ryan have to say this week about the happenings within his own club?

“We’ve had sleep people come in, talking about how important sleep is, how important it is to get eight hours of it. We bring in these specialists for a reason. … If we can gain a little advantage, then we’re going to look for it.”

Straight from the mouth of the head coach of the Jets.  With his team 2-1 this year, the Jets are looking at the world of sleep science for an advantage in an increasingly competitive AFC East division.  While I would fundamentally disagree with 8 hours of sleep being some kind of magic number for every football player, at least they are talking about the topic.

Gaining a competitive edge

Consider the following:  In 1965 when Gatorade was introduced, the world of competitive athletics largely ignored the power of proper hydration in the elite athlete.  Fast forward to the present.  Now every professional and collegiate athlete as well as every Pee-Wee player is hydrating between plays like their life depended on it.  Consider also that in that same four decade time period, the average individual has lost approximately one hour of sleep nightly.  A small group of smart coaches are beginning to see the potential advantage for their team in this statistic.

How do you make the jump from a team of 53 football players and their sleep habits to a measurable advantage?  It is not as hard as you would think.

The JETS look to take the lead

Start with Coach Ryan’s comments.  The idea of a team valuing sleep is huge.  So much attention is paid to stretching properly, film study, receiving the correct injury treatments and rehabilitation, and eating to maximize strength and recovery.  All of these things are incredibly valuable, and all can be undone by improper sleep.  Here are some ways that sleep can impact the professional football player.

  • With the rise of Thursday night NFL games, teams often only have a short period of time in which to recover before their next game.  Athletic recovery (and recovery in general) is tied to optimal growth hormone secretion.  Since growth hormone is secreted during deep sleep, players who have better, more robust deep sleep may recover more quickly.
  • Professional football is a complex sport.  Optimizing sleep plays an important role in cognition and memory.  Split-second decisions and reaction times can be negatively affected if sleep is poor.
  • Travel and the movement of players through multiple time zones impacts many individuals negatively.  Learning how to lessen the blow of travel is the focus of many professional franchises.
  • Anxiety prior to a game or frustration after a game can lead to insomnia.  Players that learn how to minimize the effects of sleeplessness on their lives often have much more productive seasons.
  • Preliminary research has shown that sleepy athletes tend to fare worse than non-sleepy athletes in terms of career longevity.

Hopefully in the future, the NFL will embrace sleep medicine like it embraces orthopedics, or sports nutrition.  In a league with so few opportunities, the sleep advantage is there for the taking.  In 1967, Bobby Dodd cited his team’s lack of Gatorade as the reason he lost in the Orange Bowl to the University of Florida.  Could there be a time in the future when a losing NFL coach cites his lack of sleep science awareness as the reason his team lost the Super Bowl?  While the answer to that question is uncertain, what is certain is that Rex Ryan does not intend on being that coach.


  1. This is cool. I wish my Eagles would call this guy. Somebody was asleep at the wheel yesterday.

    • Ted Sundquist Ted Sundquist says:

      The Giants won the World Series the first season working with Dr. Winter, the Thunder have been playoff contenders over the course of the same period. He knows his stuff!

  2. I do everything better when I sleep well, so this is no surprise to me. If I was an athlete, I would have so much trouble sleeping before a game. Maybe that happens to professional athletes too.

    • Ted Sundquist Ted Sundquist says:

      But you’d be shocked at how little both the players and coaches understand the dynamics of getting this done correctly SHOCKED!

  3. I bet Jerry Rice slept well…probably why he was so good for so long.

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