Some years ago, a group of researchers in Australia wanted to understand how dangerous driving a truck was while sleep deprived. So, they gathered a large group of truckers and ran two tests.
For the first test, they got the truckers drunk. After each drink, they tested their blood-alcohol level, and then put them through a series of simple tests. They tested memory, hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and their ability to multitask and perform low-level cognitive tasks.
In the second test, they kept the truckers awake for 17 hours. After every hour, they ran the same series of simple tests as they did in the first test.
What they learned was pretty scary. After 17 hours without sleep, the truckers performed at the same level or worse than when their blood-alcohol concentration was at 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower. After longer periods of sleep deprivation, their performance decreased to the BAC level of 0.1%. (Just for reference, a BAC above 0.05% in many countries (0.08% in America) is above the legal limit.) The scary truth: Driving while sleep deprived has the potential to be just as dangerous as being under the influence.
The Importance of Sleep
It is only in the last 20 years that we have come to really understand “why we sleep” as a species. When it comes to our health, people have put a premium on nutrition and exercise but have been willing to sacrifice sleep. At what cost?
Matthew Walker—sleep scientist at Google, and Professor of Neuroscience at Cal Berkley—says, “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. Every physiological system of the body and operation of the mind are enhanced by sleep.” You have a 65% increase in mortality when you deprive yourself of sleep. What scientists have found is that sleep deprivation (anything less than 7 hours/night) leads to diabetes, suicidality, anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s. When it comes to resetting and restoring brain and body health, sleep is the most effective thing we can do.
Other than avoiding death and a host of other illnesses, there are three really important reasons we sleep! First, if you are in sports, I am sure you understand the importance of sleep for restoration. It’s why we encourage our athletes to get a good night’s sleep! Secondly, sleep deprivation compromises metabolism significantly, so you end up burning muscle (not fat!) while you sleep.
The third (and probably most significant) reason that affects our coaching performance is memory consolidation. We sleep to not only move our memories from short-term to long-term storage, but during REM sleep, we actually connect new memories with previous memories. Sleep is a powerful way to find creative solutions to previously unsolvable problems!
Sleep in Coaching
People’s beliefs around proper sleep in the coaching world have long been that if you want to be successful, you are going to have to put in long hours. The expectation is that you have to stay up late studying film to get your team ready for the next game. This is probably the case in football more than any other sport. Just look at this conversation on the Freakanomics podcast between Steven Dubner and the Head Coach of the 49ers, Kyle Shanahan:
DUBNER: So, I have to say, you hear these stories forever about coaches literally sleeping in their offices, working these hours that you described. I think anybody listening to this, those hours sound totally nuts.
DUBNER: And my thought is always, “Does it really have to be that way?” For people who don’t know the game or care about it, and they hear, “Wait a minute, you’re a football coach; why do you need to be working 18 hours? What are you doing?”
SHANAHAN: On a Monday, as a head coach, I need to watch the game for myself, which is offensive-side, defensive-side, special teams. It’s rewind, fast-forward, sideline copy, and there’s three clips before we get past one play on one side of the ball, and I’ve got to watch it with the coaches, and then, when that is done, I’ve got to get the whole team together, and I got to watch certain clips of the team from head-coach standpoint. Anyways, it takes all Monday, all right? It takes all Monday, and now we’ve got to start watching Seattle, who we play the next Sunday.
DUBNER: Has anybody ever tried—has any coach ever said, “You know what? Maybe all those hours that we’re working, if we slept more, we’d be sharper and try to make up for it that way?” Has anybody ever tried a totally different approach?
SHANAHAN: Yeah, totally.
DUBNER: And those are no longer coaching—
SHANAHAN: Guys you would never know their name because they don’t last long, and, I mean, it’s okay if we’re tired, and we barely can function. We don’t have to perform the play. It’s us wearing our brains out all week to put our players in the best opportunity possible for them to be successful.
Super Bowl Coach Tony Dungy disagrees. “All the hours don’t necessarily lead to a better team or a better game plan, but we do it anyway because it takes a lot of confidence and a very good grasp of things to be able to say the words: ‘We’re ready; we should all go home.’ Unfortunately, there is a new generation of coaches under the impression that a 60-to-70-hour week is normal,” Dungy says. “Those interested in regular life are few and far between.”
The Badge of Honor
I’ve worked with coaches at every level of college and high-school sports. In my conversations with coaches, the #1 challenge with sleeping more is not the fear of being unprepared for the next game. It is the fear of what others will think.
Head coaches are afraid their staff and players will doubt their commitment and work ethic. They are afraid of being compared to other coaches in their league, who sleep at the office. Assistant coaches are afraid to challenge the head coach and the norms. They feel that to rise up the ranks, the only way to prove yourself is by logging long hours in the film room.
Most coaches will privately admit that everything that needs to get done could be done within normal hours. One coach I worked with at a high-profile collegiate football program said the long hours were due to perception and inefficiency in their system of preparation.
Now coaches aren’t the only ones who wear sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. Doctors and businessmen have longed bragged about burning the midnight oil. People are shamed for getting the proper amount of rest and maintaining a good balance in life. This attitude around healthy sleep habits is a must-change for multiple reasons.
5 Reasons Coaches Should Sleep 7+ Hours Every Night
- Improve Performance: Simply put, if you want to be at your best, sleep 7-8 hours a night. Researchers have shown that people who sleep 8+ hours show no cognitive decreases or attention lapses. Groups of people getting 4-6 hours of sleep a night show a steady decline each day. Surprisingly, there was little difference between the 4-hour and 6-hour groups!
- Improve Your Health: Your team and your family deserve a physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy individual. Every hour of sleep you lose gives them less of that person.
- Boost Your Efficiency: As coaches, we pride ourselves on efficiency. Instead of working harder, try working smarter. In today’s technological age, we should be able to do a lot more with a lot less.
- Set a Positive Example: Moderation in every area of our life is an important message that we should communicate to our players and staff. Your example will speak loudly on this.
- Work-Life Balance: Sleep deprivation and working long hours is surely a large contributing factor to the high divorce rate in coaching. Even if your team’s performance will drop if you sleep more (and I don’t think it has to!) is your relationship with your family worth sacrificing over a game?