Everyone knows you feel better after a good night’s rest. But what if good sleep meant more than just feeling better. What if it meant performing better? The 2019 World Series Champs, the Washington Nationals, may have found the secret to understanding this key difference. After a rocky start losing 48 games in the first half of their season, they finally picked up momentum and ended winning the World Series. Ironically, data typically shows players on 24 of the 30 teams in the MLB having a worse strike-zone judgment later in the season in September and October when the playoff lights shine, than they do at the beginning of the season in April. With a grueling 182 game season, this makes sense as players understandably grow increasingly tired due to demanding travel schedules and a lack of days off.
So, while most teams’ plate discipline steadily declined, the Nationals’ overall performance was increasing. The Nationals were able to take advantage of other teams’ declining performance with a little help from Dr. Meeta Singh, a sleep expert. The sleep physician recently partnered with the Nationals for their 2019 season and was in charge of giving recommendations to the team on how to reduce their players’ fatigue and enhance performance. Dr. Singh altered travel plans to reduce jet lag, gave suggestions on bedtime routines, advised when to take naps or how to be more alert for late-night games, and optimized the team’s sleep schedule. Dr. Singh stresses that “you want to optimize your sleep because that helps you to optimize your reaction time, your accuracy, even split-second decision making. It helps in preventing injuries and recovering from injury. Really, it helps in every aspect of athletics.”
Dr. Singh and the Nationals are clearly onto something. The Nationals are part of an athletic league that deals in seconds and centimeters when it comes to striking zones and base sprints. Any advantage over another team, no matter how small, can be the difference between one team holding the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the season, and the other team watching yet another year slip by. With a tight 4-3 World Series win, the Nationals took advantage of every chance they could get, beginning with the implementation of a strict sleep regimen. Teams make minute changes to their players’ diets, exercise regimens, and athletic strategies; sleep is just as important and should not be forgotten.
Josh James, the starting pitcher for the Houston Astros, was doing everything right—eating a healthy diet, participating in a strict physical and mental conditioning program, and going to bed on time. Yet, he continuously woke up tired and was unable to perform at the level he knew he was capable of. However, after seeing a sleep specialist who diagnosed him with sleep apnea in 2018 and getting a CPAP machine, his performance increased exponentially. CPAP machines help those suffering from sleep apnea regulate their breathing and ensure they are getting oxygen delivered to their lungs throughout the entire night. Understanding and treating his sleep disorder was imperative to James getting back in his groove. Dr. Singh describes sleep as a “circuit board with one switch. And if that one switch fails, almost everything else will also break down.”
Dominic Smith was facing a similar situation. Smith opened with an amazing .500 batting average last spring, but two years prior in 2017, his average was only a mere .198. Prior to the 2019 season, Smith was unaware of his sleep apnea and was not receiving treatment. He was even considering getting tested for ADHD because he was unable to focus during practices and throughout games. However, once asleep physician diagnosed Smith and he started using a CPAP machine, his performance substantially improved. Smith explained that “it changed my life. I can focus. I have energy now. I don’t have headaches. I feel like I can really focus now and really see the pitches, I can see spin better and it really helps me lay up the pitches.”
Sleep physicians like Dr. Singh know that “lack of sleep makes [your reactions] slower, less accurate; it affects your decision-making; it contributes to errors.” Low performance levels and high probability of errors are not a good combination when looking to make it to playoffs or avoiding the injury list. But more and more players are prioritizing their sleep routines.
Carlos Gonzalez said he “knows how it feels to be a great player, and I know how it feels to be a bad player.”The difference? Getting a good night’s rest. Gonzalez struggled with falling asleep and not having enough energy, explaining that “it’s really tough in Denver where everywhere you play is in a different time zone. It’s a challenge and you really have to make adjustments.” But small adjustments like consistent bedtimes, not watching TV late at night, and dark curtains keep light out of his room have made him a better athlete. Gonzalez only hit a .221 in the first half of the 2017 season with a .299 on-base percentage and a .388 slugging percentage. But after prioritizing his sleep, those numbers became significantly more attractive. Later in September, Gonzalez hit a .377 with a .484 on-base percentage and a .766 slugging percentage. “It’s amazing the difference it’s made,” Gonzalez says.
Because sleep disorders can impact hand-eye coordination, injury rates, endurance, rapid cognition, and decision making, as well as emotional stability, it’s imperative that sleep health be a priority in an athlete’s physical well-being. Diagnosis and ongoing care management are essential in understanding how athletes can improve their accuracy, athletic career duration, mental sharpness, reaction time, sprint speeds, and other performance related actions.
While altering travel schedules and creating bedtime routines are extremely important in positively influencing an athlete’s sleep habits, understanding their individual sleep needs is an equally, if not more important, aspect to curating a good night’s rest. There are many biological factors that can’t be fixed with specific bedtimes or reduced caffeine intake. An athlete could be following all these sleep “rules” and still not wake up feeling rested. That’s why nightly monitoring is so important in understanding one’s own sleep character and recognizing what changes need to be made.
Somnology offers an industry changing solution—the SomnoRing, an FDA cleared ring-shaped device that allows the wearer to get nightly insights on their sleep patterns. The ring monitors oxygen levels, pulse rate, movements, and REM cycles at a level so specific, it’s similar to that of an in-lab sleep test. It even detects any sleep disorders if present, and can subsequently pair you with a sleep doctor where you can schedule telehealth consultations and better manage your care of sleep problems.
Physical performance might matter a little more in the workplace for Josh James, Carlos Gonzalez, and Dominic Smith, but mental performance is just as important in the day-to-day jobs of those without million-dollar athletic contracts. A good night’s sleep is essential to battling fatigue and remaining alert throughout the day. Somnology’s online application, Mobile Sleep Doc, is a great way to keep track of nightly sleep habits and learn how to improve one’s sleep health.