Monday, January 12, 2009

Seeking a competitive advantage through sleep

Fascinating story by POR beat writer Jason Quick about how sleep and sleep patterns can affect a team's play when traveling through timezones. It's something the Arizona Cardinals struggled with this season (see post here).

This season, when making East Coast swings, POR coach Nate McMillan is asking his players "to stay up late in order to keep their bodies, and sleep patterns, on Portland time."

It was all part of the Blazers' new approach to how they travel, and more specifically, how they sleep when they travel. Flight departures were altered. Morning shootarounds canceled. Curfews relaxed. All so the Blazers players could get better sleep.

The professor of Harvard Medical School's Division of Sleep Medicine, who's done work with NASA and Team USA, "stresses the importance of getting enough sleep each night and keeping the body's internal clocks in sync by maintaining consistent sleep patterns. Inside the Blazers locker room, he has become known simply as 'The Sleep Doctor.'"

"I think it has done wonders for our team," Brandon Roy said.

According to the professor (pictured above), "Sleep can provide a tactical advantage, and it is largely unrecognized in sports."

Following the professor's advice, earlier this season, the Blazers had a 10:15 p.m. practice at Orlando.

"Normally, the Blazers would have left Portland that day at 8 a.m., arrived in Orlando around 5 p.m. and started practice around 6 p.m. That night, McMillan not only covered his practice plan, he incorporated the scouting report and walk-through for the next day's game, eliminating the need for a 10 a.m. shootaround the next day. By eliminating the morning shootaround, there was no pressure to get up early."

As the article points out, most pro teams follow the same routine: "Early departure. Practice upon arrival. Early-morning shootaround the next day."

The problem, according to the players, was that the departure often followed a home game the night before, which usually keeps the players awake until at least 2 a.m. To catch the morning flight, the players would often get only three hours sleep before they had to wake, pack and get to the airport.

What happens is that "players would instantly fall asleep on the plane, ignoring the need to eat both breakfast and lunch. When they arrived in the east for practice, they were not only tired and irritable, they were hungry."

According to the Sleep Doctor, who visited with the team when it came to BOS to play the Celtics:

"It immediately became obvious that their approach from the moment they left Portland was very disruptive for sleep. This is a relatively simple way to take advantage of their talent to the fullest. In the same way the team needs to stay in sync with each other on the court, they need to be in sync internally and physiologically, in order to perform."

Recalls Coach McMillan, "He started talking about improving performance by 15 percent ... I'd give it a shot."

Among the first changes the team made to its schedule was "moving the team's departure from Portland from 8 a.m. to noon. This allowed the players the chance to attain 8 hours of sleep after the previous night's home game against Minnesota."

There was an immediate change, according to team officials. "The players were lively as they boarded Blazer One, the team's private jet, at Portland International Airport. They ate. And they interacted with each other."

Said Travis Outlaw: "You could just tell a difference on the plane. Everyone seemed more ready for the day. Instead of everyone not talking and saying they were going to sleep, you saw everybody laughing and joking."

So has it worked?

"After going 7-14 last season in games played two or more time zones away, the Blazers are 7-2 this season heading into this week's four-game trip that starts Monday in Chicago and continues through Philadelphia, New Jersey and Charlotte."