Sleep deprivation has substantial effects on mood, mental and cognitive skills, and motor abilities, and this certainly applies to athletes:
It seems like certain kinds of athletic tasks are more affected by sleep deprivation. Although one-off efforts and high-intensity exercise see an impact, sustained efforts and aerobic work seem to suffer an even larger setback. Gross motor skills are relatively unaffected, while athletes in events requiring fast reaction times have a particularly hard time when they get less sleep.
Until recently, no one had studied the opposite of sleep deprivation, sleep extension:
The Cardinal men’s basketball team volunteered to be Mah’s study cohort. Eleven players used motion-sensing wristbands to determine how long they slept on average—just over 6.5 hours a night. For two weeks, the team kept to their normal schedules, while Mah’s researchers measured their performances on sprint drills, free throws, and three-point shooting. Then, the players were told to try and sleep as much as they could for five to seven weeks, with a goal of 10 hours in bed each night. Their actual time asleep, as measured by the sensors attached to their wrists, went from an average of 6.5 hours to nearly 8.5 hours.
The results were startling. By the end of the extra-sleep period, players had improved their free throw shooting by 11.4 percent and their three-point shooting by 13.7 percent. There was an improvement of 0.7 seconds on the 282-foot sprint drill—every single player on the team was quicker than before the study had started.
A 13-percent performance enhancement is the sort of gain that one associates with drugs or years of training—not simply making sure to get tons of sleep.
Professional athletes have to travel, and they often have to travel across time zones. Over the season, they appear to get fatigued and make certain kinds of errors more often:
Researchers at Vanderbilt University examined the plate discipline of hitters in baseball over the course of the season, and found that hitters swing at more pitches outside the strike zone late in the season than they do earlier in the season. Why? Dr. Scott Kutscher, the leader of the research team, said in a press release, “We theorize that this decline is tied to fatigue that develops over the course of the season due to a combination of frequency of travel and paucity of days off.”
Kutscher’s team has found that this decay in plate discipline has become more pronounced in baseball since 2006—the year that Major League Baseball banned stimulants. (For years, bowls of amphetamines, known as “greenies,” were a fixture in baseball clubhouses.)
Whoa, whoa, whoa. The “greenies” popular in the 1960s were just banned eight years ago? Wow.