“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Interesting quote, isn’t it? This quote has been attributed to both General George Patton and Vince Lombardi—two pretty impressive guys. Now, these two men are referring to fatigue as it relates to physical conditioning and the fact that their soldiers and players need to be in better shape than their opponents. But the fatigue I want to talk about is different. I want to talk about sleep.

Most of the time, my posts are movement or mindset focused: new exercises for your workouts, conditioning equipment to implement in your workouts, or the focus, intensity and purpose of a certain training drill. But this post is different. It is about something that you don’t have to buy, learn, or otherwise take time to understand before you implement. Here it is: Get plenty of sleep every night. As in 8+ hours of sleep. No exceptions. If you want, you can quit reading now (perhaps get ready for bed?). For those of you interested, below are a few of the many benefits of getting enough sleep.

(1) Improve Performance

Reaction time is demonstrably better when fully rested. Studies show that sleep deprivation can drastically decrease a person’s reaction time. Reaction time is critical for athletes of all sports. For example, in baseball a hitter is forced to decide within fractions of a second whether they should swing at a 90+ mph fastball that is being hurled toward home plate. Or think of a runner leading off of first base who is about to steal second and needs to take off the moment the pitcher makes his move toward home. Or picture a basketball player who is guarding his man with the ball who crosses over and starts to drive to the hoop and needs to quickly reposition his feet. Or imagine a linebacker who bites on the play action pass but realizes the quarterback is about to throw the ball downfield and needs to immediately change direction to cover a receiver. There are countless examples because an athlete's reaction time is critical to athletic performance in every sport, and it is one of the things that separates an elite athlete from the average athlete. Every split second of improved reaction time improves performance. And being fully rested is an easy way to ensure that your brain and body are synced to enhance your athletic abilities.

(2) Decrease chance of injury

This one may surprise some of you, but there are several reasons for it. First, as discussed above, fatigue affects reaction time. A tired athlete who is slower to react to a situation on the court or field is more likely to find himself in a vulnerable, injury prone position. A slower reaction time might mean not being able to avoid a collision on the field, or might force the athlete to make a sudden movement from a weaker, more stressful position that is likely to result in an injury. For example, if a hitter’s reaction time is slightly decreased at the plate he might fail to get out of the way of a 95 mph fastball that is up and in, which increases the chance of that player’s injury.

Fatigue also affects the body’s immune system, making players more susceptible to illness. Perhaps most importantly, shorter sleep periods do not provide the body with sufficient time to regenerate cells and repair the muscles, tissues, ligaments, and tendons from the abuse of workouts, games, and other daily activities. The ability to recover quickly from the abuse that athletes’ bodies endure is of utmost importance. An athlete, no matter how gifted and talented, is never going to achieve his potential if he is constantly on the disabled list or dealing with injuries.

(3) Decrease Mental Errors

Sleep loss impairs a person’s judgment. Numerous studies have shown that motivation, focus, memory, and learning are impaired by a lack of sleep. It is critical for athletes to be able to intensely concentrate on the task at hand and anything that might disrupt this concentration can have a seriously negative impact. We have all heard of athletes making mental errors; perhaps it is missing a sign, forgetting how many outs there are (think of those Major Leaguers who have tossed the ball to a fan after a catch when there are only two outs), or forgetting to tag up during a fly out to the outfield. The only explanation for this is a lack of concentration, focus, and/or memory.

There is actually an incredible, and surprising, study that demonstrates how the grind of a long season can impact judgment and concentration. The study's conclusion was that MLB players show decreased plate discipline as the season progresses. In other words, players begin swinging at balls outside the strike-zone at a greater percentage. One might think that plate discipline would actually improve over the course of a season as players are getting four at-bats per game every night, but this study demonstrated that baseball athletes actually had better plate discipline (i.e. judgment) at the start, not the end, of the long 162 game season. The cause for this is almost certainly mental fatigue during the long grind that is a professional baseball season.

I want to point out that I have deliberately omitted from this post the science behind sleeping, such as discussing the different stages of sleep and all of the physiological events that occur during sleep. The reason for this is that most of you do not need to know WHY sleeping aids in an athlete's performance and recovery, you just need to know that it does. Simply put, sleep provides energy to both the brain and the body, as the body releases certain hormones that are essential for muscle repair, muscle building, bone growth and promoting the oxidation of fat—all of which are essential for athletes. The bottom line is that a lack of sleep can negatively impact your performance.

So the takeaway is this: if you are an athlete you must get 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Being an elite athlete is difficult enough, don’t hamper yourself by failing to do something as simple as getting plenty of sleep each and every night.

Until next time,

Brian Oates