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Northwestern takes sleeping seriously

By December, following two months of conference competition, we should have a pretty decent idea of which team is the best in the Big Ten. We already know which is the most well-rested. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has long emphasized regimented sleep, including naps, as part of his team’s weekly game preparation. Getting a lot of sleep, particularly on game days, is a big priority, but how much are players actually sleeping? And is it enough? This season, with a little help from the McCormick School of Engineering, the Wildcats are using a scientific approach to monitor their sleep patterns.

Starting in preseason camp, when several players strapped special sensors to their arms, the Wildcats have been tracking how much and how well they sleep. Fitzgerald, a proponent of mid-afternoon naps, embraced the idea, and the Wildcats have turned daily sleep averages as calculated by the sensors into a competition of sorts, with members of the same position group gauging results amongst each other. The New York Times jumped on the story earlier this week, and Teddy Greenstein from the Chicago Tribune followed up Friday with some interesting details – including the involvement of former Northwestern receiver Zeke Markshausen – surrounding the backstory of the sleep assessment.

From the Times:

The players began wearing movement sensor armbands during training camp, except when they are practicing or in the weight room. The sensors have mainly been used to track the quantity and quality of sleep each player gets. Fitzgerald plans to have his players wear them throughout the rest of the season. Although players are not required to wear the sensors, most do. 

“At first, we didn’t really know much about sleep and we were just curious,” said defensive end Tyler Scott, a team captain. “But we really embraced it, and after a while, we got really competitive about sleep efficiency. We started checking our data every day.”

Reaching peak-performance in any form of athletic competition – football or otherwise – is a scientific process. As any specialist (including the one, Emma Adam, cited in the above-linked Times story) will tell you, the amount and quality of sleep one logs every night has direct effects on a number of basic bodily functions. Sleep deprivation can impair energy levels, mental alertness and other important faculties, so Fitzgerald has, even before this recent experiment, wisely seen to it that his players are banking enough z’s.

The arm band experiment is cool, but it didn’t take a pioneering study --  Adam says she “has never seen an assessment done on this big a group of athletes” – to know Fitzgerald takes his players’ sleep patterns very seriously. In 2007, noticing players were often sluggish during afternoon practices, Fitzgerald switched workouts to mornings, to the great chagrin of all NU media, but to the benefit of the players, who according to director of athletic training services Tory Lindley, perform more consistently and benefit from improved nutrient intake. Lindley also said the Wildcats were one of the first high-profile programs to move practices to mornings, and that others, noticing the advantages of NU’s scheduling, have since followed suit.

You can also look at this season’s practice schedule to date for evidence of Northwestern’s delicate management of its players’ sleep: In the days leading up to the Wildcats’ 9:30 CT kickoff in the season-opener at Cal, Fitzgerald pushed practices back to 9:30 pm, allowed players to sleep in to 10 am and stay awake until 1 or 2 am, and adjusted meal and nap times in an attempt to preempt the lethargy and general sluggishness often brought on by jet lag. Players were able to simulate eating, sleeping and playing in a West Coast time zone before flying out to Berkeley, which probably didn't play a huge role in their win over the Golden Bears, but it's not unreasonable to think it helped them overcome, at least in some small way, the typical struggles associated with timezone-traversing cross-country trips.

The practice time adjustments are intuitive and forward-looking; this team-wide study is, needless to say, unique. If it compels the Wildcats to pay closer attention to how much they’re sleeping every night, and how much sleep they need to make up during the day with naps, that’s probably a good thing. More sleep may not equal more wins, but the relationship isn’t inversely proportional. That’s for sure.

There’s a positive correlation.