Is the NFL Starting to Take Sleep Science Seriously?

Is the NFL Starting to Take Sleep Science Seriously?

Imagine a conference championship game five or 10 years from now. The road team, having traveled to London and Las Vegas for its previous playoff games, arrives in Foxborough and engineers a shocking upset with the help of a surprising strategy: Even though the team’s quarterback is an All-Pro known for picking apart defenses, it employs a scaled-back, run-heavy game plan.

The head coach explains his daring tactical shift at the postgame press conference. “Well, Deshaun’s sleep hygiene has been terrible because of all our travel,” he says. “Our monitors recorded a 37 percent reduction in high-order decision-making because of poor sleep. Meanwhile, Ezekiel’s sleep hygiene has been great, speeding his recovery from that high ankle sprain. So we decided to pound the ball between the tackles.”

Coaching decisions based on sleep habits? Precision monitoring of players’ sleep and how it affects their health and performance? “Sleep hygiene?”

Does sleep even make that much of a difference, assuming a player got at least a little of it in the 48 hours before kickoff?

It turns out that sleep is the next frontier of NFL performance. Sports scientists around the world are studying it. Companies are designing new products to monitor it. Sleep is becoming the elite athlete’s secret weapon, and the NFL is just starting to discover how to harness its potential.

Learning the Language of Sleep

Gary McCoy, a sports science consultant for many NFL teams over the last few years, watched a pair of receivers sweat their way through a training camp session in 2015. One receiver was a celebrated veteran, the other a speedy young up-and-comer. Both wore high-tech sensors that monitored their heart rates, body temperatures and physical stresses during the intense practice. The sensors confirmed that the stress data for each receiver was roughly equal: Practice was just as hard for both of them.

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