This year at WFS Europe we are launching a new track specifically on understanding all the elements that maximize player performance. After all, at its core, the entire industry depends on healthy players being able to play to the best of their abilities.
Over the last few years, the industry has evolved from focusing on the physical component to doing so on realms like mental awareness, nutrition, and sleep, which is precisely the topic of this article.
It is simply amazing to see how much sleep influences, not only athletic performance but decision-making and overall well-being. To understand this in greater detail, WFS Digest sat down with one of the biggest experts in the world on the science of sleep, Dr. Meeta Singh, Performance Sleep Medicine Consultant, Founder & CEO at Performance Delta LLC.
Dr. Singh is a board-certified physician and psychiatrist concentrated in the applied science of sleep to help optimize athletic performance. Her expertise in the sports industry is remarkable as she has worked with organisations from the NFL, NBA, MLB, the US Olympic Team, and even football properties in Europe and Asia.
The conversation covers general aspects like circadian rhythms, the latest research around the science of sleep, the factors that influence sleep (including nutrition, light, or napping), and how all of this is applied to the realm of player performance. Dr. Singh also shares “best-in-class” examples and practical advice from the sports industry that athletes, coaches, or any executive in the football ecosystem can learn from.
The best thing is that Dr. Singh is a confirmed speaker for WFS Europe, so you can expect to hear more insights from her on the live stage! The following is the recording of the entire conversation and, as usual, you can find below the answers to some of the most relevant questions Dr. Singh was kind enough to answer. Enjoy!
Dr. Singh: This is a great observation. All those things that actually make you a very good player on the field are also the reasons that will make it more difficult for you to wind down and fall asleep at night.
While they are on the field they’re hyper-alert, and hyper-focused, their body temperature is high, and so is their adrenaline.
This is a space where I have expertise and where I work with individual athletes to help them develop the practice of a winding down schedule that actually helps them fall asleep at night, stay asleep, and also develop a realistic expectation of what sleep is going to look like after such a significant moment of high tension.
“Those things that actually make you a very good player on the field are also the reasons that will make it more difficult for you to wind down and fall asleep at night.”
WFS: “Life” happens and there are periods when it is difficult to get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Can “quality” of sleep overcome “quantity” of sleep?
Dr. Singh: If you’re getting less than six hours, you’re likely to have detrimental effects from lack of sleep. And the worst thing about that is that you yourself are not going to be aware of those detriments so objectively: You become slower, you become inaccurate, and can even develop issues with mental health, etc.
You want to think about sleep in three large categories. Firstly, you want to think about the quantity of sleep, which on average you want to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
Number two is the quality of sleep. When you’re in bed, you want to make sure that you spend most of the time sleeping, and that you get a good amount of the different stages of sleep.
And then the third thing is the timing of sleep. Again, we talked a little bit about it when we talked about the circadian rhythms, right? If you’re a night owl, it’d be best if you slept in accordance with your circadian clock, if you’re a morning person, it would be best if you aligned your sleep according to that, and then also you want to be regular with your sleep.
So the very simple answer is quality of sleep is really good, of course. But if you were regularly getting five hours of sleep, if you were regularly depriving yourself of getting enough sleep, the quality doesn’t really matter.
In a sense, it’s like calories. So you need a certain amount of calories to sustain life. If on a regular basis, you were on a starvation diet, even if you were eating the best quality food, it wouldn’t matter.
WFS: You look at an athlete like LeBron James, and you see the longevity of his career and how he’s been able to be at the peak for all of it. In an interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, he described how much care he puts into “sleep.” So he gets eight or nine hours of sleep, has the room completely dark, controls the room temperature, turns off electronics, etc. So are there any particular guidelines that you recommend athletes should follow up to get a good night’s sleep?
Dr. Singh: Yes, so first of all, you know what you just described is just things that normally everybody including athletes should do. You want your bedroom to be cold, dark, and quiet. You want it to be electronic-free, not just because of the light that comes from it, but the electronics are interactive, right?
And so if you want to get on social media, it’s sort of difficult to disengage from it and make time for sleep. People say that it’s relaxing but it’s actually more distracting than relaxing.
So I would say apart from those normal things, I would highlight three main things:
Number one is the reduction of light exposure at night, not having for example, the television on, not being on electronics, etc.
Number two is reducing the amount of caffeine you drink, and that’s really relevant to players because if they are going to be competing and kickoff is at eight o’clock at night, most of them will drink a couple of energy drinks because they crave that energy. But this means that half of that caffeine is still in the system when they go to bed and while they’re trying to fall asleep, which may make it difficult.
You also want to reduce the amount of alcohol because it will disrupt your sleep later at night and, finally, develop a good winding down schedule, something that’s quiet and relaxing, electronic-free, etc.
If people have spiritual practices, such as meditation, that’s a good time to do it.
WFS: Caffeine intake is indeed something worth exploring a bit more…
Dr. Singh: Yes, let’s focus on caffeine because I believe especially athletes are really interested in this. There’s actually research that athletes don’t even realize how much caffeine there is in different things.
They usually understand an energy drink as a workout drink that they want to have before the game, in the middle of the game, or they may even think of it as a post-workout drink not realizing that it has caffeine.
What caffeine does, as it goes and attaches to that part of the brain that is responsible for sleepiness, is block the effect of sleepiness.
It stays there for about five to six hours, which means that if you drink a cup of coffee at seven o’clock at night, or caffeine in any form, half of it is still in your system five or six hours later…
But this is complicated because some people are fast metabolizers which means that they rapidly removed the caffeine from their systems, and others are slow. In the end, it’s an individualized approach and you have to kind of figure out whether it allows you to fall asleep or not. Athletes obviously want to have maximum energy while competing, but then when they go back home or to their hotel room, they need to make sure they fall asleep.
WFS: You also mentioned nutrition and that’s also an important topic, especially for athletes. Is it true that it’s best to eat dinner around three to five hours before going to sleep?
Dr. Singh: Well, generally the recommendation is that you don’t eat within two to four hours of going to bed. But again, athletes need to kind of tailor that. Suppose they come off the game and they want to eat a large meal. And then perhaps they might need a couple of snacks because sometimes athletes use up so much energy, so many calories, but you don’t want hunger to wake them up.
So perhaps some sort of snack which is light like nuts might be OK but definitely not a chocolate bar because that contains caffeine and other things.
Typically for sleep, they say you want to eat something that has complex carbs. That might help you fall asleep at night. But again, it would be very individualized.
WFS: The truth is that these athletes deal with a lot of pressure, which I would assume, that’s also a factor that impacts the quality of sleep…
Dr. Singh: Well, you’re absolutely right. Some athletes, just by their personalities, those that are type A, are slightly anxious, they’re very focused. That makes it more difficult for them to relax.
In general, though, they have a lot of pressure on them and it’s not just an internal pressure to perform…
Their coaches, their audience, their fans, their agents, their family, etc. And that might make it more difficult for them to relax. The fact that athletes are set up for poor sleep is well researched.
With my training one of the focus of our company is that when I work with an athlete or when we work with teams, we focus on mental strength, as well as taking care of their sleep because they really go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other.
So if you’ve ever had a poor night of sleep, because you’ve had issues with some sort of stress (which can really affect sleep), it causes a bi-directional effect. So if you have poor sleep, then that makes it more difficult for you to cope with the stresses of the next day, especially with the high pressure in the elite sport world.
It’s a vicious cycle and oftentimes the best way to handle it is by addressing the sleep part of it.
“Sleep & mental strength really go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other.”
WFS: Are there any “best-in-class” examples that you can think of (either teams or players) who are an example of understanding the importance of sleep to optimize for athletic performance?
Dr. Singh: Oh, yes. In almost every major league, if you look at top performers, they will tell you that optimizing sleep is their superpower. You mentioned LeBron James, but Tom Brady, Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal have also said it.
From my work, I can tell you about my experience with a major league baseball team, the Washington Nationals. During that year when I was working with them as their sleep consultant, we wanted to optimize sleep, especially because of the travel and the impact of jet lag on their performance. That year was the first time in history that they actually won the World Series…
The research clearly shows that poor sleep because of either irregular schedules, or mental pressures is a part of the athlete’s life. It’s something that happens to most athletes and most teams.
So optimizing sleep improves overall performance.
WFS: For people who are interested in learning about sleep and about your work, where should they go?
Dr. Singh: You can review my website, www.meetasinghmd.com, and I regularly post on social media (Meeta Singh, MD). I also have plenty of interviews and talks on YouTube for people to be able to get access to that information.
In addition to that, there is the National Sleep Foundation, which is basically out of the US and there is some valuable information that is present there.
4 PROVEN BENEFITS OF GETTING ENOUGH SLEEPhttps://t.co/NvlMPk5JaP
Sleep specialist Dr. Meeta Singh shares how more shut-eye can improve your health and your physique.#Sleep #sleeptowin #sleepisaweapon #coachingthesleepmuscle #peakperformance
— Meeta Singh MD (@meetasinghmd) July 21, 2022
WFS: Is there any groundbreaking research that you’re looking into, that’s caught your attention as of late?
Dr. Singh: Well, I think that the science about circadian rhythms, which are these biological rhythms that everybody has, is going to transform healthcare and the way that people take care of themselves in the future, and it’s actually already here…
Everything is going to be individualized and I think sleep is the next frontier in sports performance and athlete health.
And I also believe it’s important to understand that it’s not just the athletes we are speaking about. Coaches and executives also have a stake in winning and optimizing their sleep. It influences decision-making, the ability to come up with novel plays, etc.
In general, thinking outside the box is something that happens with good sleep.
“Coaches also have a stake in winning and optimizing their sleep. It influences decision-making and thinking outside the box”
WFS: Dr. Singh, what are your expectations for World Football Summit?
Dr. Singh: My number one expectation is to have the important stakeholders in the world of football start thinking about sleep and recovery and prioritize it.
Number two is that I would like to work with top-level professionals because I believe I’m the best in the business and I am very much capable to add value to their organisations.
This interview is featured in the latest edition of WFS Digest, our insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practices from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.