When someone who’s worked with both the San Francisco Giants and the Oklahoma City Thunder during championship seasons says something, you darn well should probably listen to them. Guru status is thrown around a lot pertaining to coaches and personnel men in professional football, but there are those that deserve the respect of the sensei in other areas of operations as well.
Dr. Chris Winter of the Martha Jefferson Hospital – Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, has long been assisting professional athletes with the performance enhancing benefits of proper sleep cycles and rest techniques. A former colleague asked me this week if I thought the Jacksonville Jaguars were doing the right thing staying on the west coast for back to back games with the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks, or was this just a risky gamble on their part? I replied, “Couldn’t tell you, but I know the exact person that can!”
The Football Educator
By Dr. Chris Winter – Martha Jefferson Hospital – Sleep Medicine Center
There are 8 NFL teams off to an 0-2 start this season and one is taking aggressive measures to make sure that record does not become 0-3. The Jacksonville Jaguars, after their loss in Oakland last Sunday did not board their charter jet to return to the sunshine state. Instead, they set up camp on the West Coast in an effort to tilt the odds in their favor as they traveled up the coast to deafening CenturyLink Field and the Seahawks.
Their opponent, Seattle, knows a thing or two about the ill effects of jet-lag. The end of last season, the Seahawks flew across the country and ended the Redskins playoff run with a convincing victory in D.C. The Seahawk celebration that began on their flight back to the Pacific Northwest was shortlived as the following week, after yet another cross country trip, the narrowly lost to the Falcons in Atlanta. Could the Seahawks have held on for that victory had they remained on the East Coast? Apparently Jacksonville thinks so.
The Jaguars have spent the last week on the west coast preparing for the Seahawk game that kicks-off at 4:35 eastern standard time. The organization clearly feels the cost of moving their operation across the country for the week is worth the victory. While avoiding the issues related to travel are important, evaluating their strategy through the lens of sleep science, the Jaguars might be making a huge and expensive mistake.
The science of sleep and the body’s circadian clock mechanism is vastly complicated and touches virtually every biochemical process occurring within the human body. From sleep patterns, cognition, digestion, and recovery, our bodies clearly function best when our circadian rhythm is undisturbed (if you don’t believe me, talk to a busy intercontinental pilot sometime). As we mature, disruptions to theses rhythms can be progressively more difficult to overcome (don’t believe me, talk to a busy intercontinental pilot sometime who is a few years from retirement).
In this simplistic way, the Jaguar’s move makes sense. Get the team on the West Coast, minimize their circadian disruption and grab their first victory. Dissecting this game deeper with respect to sleep shows that avoiding jet travel may not be the issue. This is where things get complicated..stay with me…
1n 1996, Smith et. al. conducted a study that illustrated that young elite athletes performed better in the late afternoon, early evening. For the sake of illustration, let’s say 5:00pm. This finding has been reproduced and is generally accepted for the average athlete. As an athlete ages, this peak performance time might become earlier in the day. For some night owls (usually younger athletes) it might be a little later.
Interestingly the Seahawks and the Jaguars are ranked 5th and 6th respectively this year interms of NFL team average age. Simply put, these are two young teams. Since young players tend to have more of a delayed circadian rhythm, they perform best later.
So with this in mind, let’s examine Sunday’s game. It kicks off 1:35 PCT, so if you have a ticket to the game in Seattle, it is starting early: 1:35 PM. If you are at home in Jacksonville watching the game on TV, your watch is reading 4:35 PM when the game starts.
Because Jacksonville made the decision to live on the West Coast for two weeks, their brains have adopted West Coast time, and the game will feel like a 1:35 PM game to their very young team. So how will they perform? My guess is they will feel sluggish, like your teenage kid feels when you wake him up early on the weekend.
Consider what would have happened if Jacksonville had returned home after the Oakland game and delayed travel to the West Coast. Without time to acclimate to the new time zone, the game would have felt more like a 4:35 PM game…a time that would have put the Jaguar athletes right in their athletic performance wheelhouse.
Bottom line: Jacksonville, it is great that you are thinking about sleep and its effects on your athletes, but you are only scratching the surface when it comes to the science of sleep in elite athletics. Jacksonville will lose the game and probably look very sluggish in the first part of the contest. They will wake up later in the game, but too little too late.
Dr. Christopher Winter has practiced sleep medicine and neurology in Charlottesville, Virginia since 2004 but has been involved with sleep medicine and sleep research since 1993. As the owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, CNSM Consulting and the Medical Director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center, Dr. Winter is not only an active participant in patient care, but a dynamic speaker and researcher on the science of sleep.