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Why improving performance can be as simple as A-B-Zzzzzzzzzz

Ask him about sleep and Brian Gionta laughs.

“Don’t come to my house,” the Buffalo Sabres captain said. It’s the typical response of any parent with three young children. Kids are running around and active. One gets sick. Chaos ensues.

Now add trying to keep your body clock on a normal pace playing an NHL schedule that features back-to-back games, quick trips to Western time zones and day games after night games. Sleep becomes difficult to get and yet sleep is a key component for professional athletes to stay healthy and continue to make physical and skill gains.

“It’s huge,” Gionta said of the importance of sleep. “It’s being able to wind yourself down after a game, back-to-backs. You have variables like anyone else, three kids at home, someone’s sick but it all goes into how you feel the next day.”

At the NHL Scouting Combine at HarborCenter, prospects were asked if they thought they were ready to play in the NHL next year.

Playing the game is one thing. Being ready for the pro lifestyle is another. Players will talk about “taking care of their bodies” and more frequently players are learning the role of sleep to improving their performance and increasing their durability and longevity.

“I think it’s something that you learn as you go along,” Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges said. “I think sometimes and I’m speaking for myself, when you’re young you think you’re invincible. You think ‘I’m 21 or 22. I’m going to enjoy the nightlife. I’m going to go out and have fun.’ And you kinda burn the candle at both ends. And as you go you realize there’s just no way to stay at this level and be good at this level if you’re doing that consistently.

“There’s times where you still have to enjoy yourself. You start to understand the importance of rest and downtime and getting your sleep. The NHL season is 82 games over 180 days. I mean it’s a grind. You need your downtime. You need your rest. You want to have any type of energy left for the offseason or that playoff push, you’ve got to take care of yourself all year.”

In the sports performance world, sleep may be the next frontier, largely left untapped by professional teams until recent years.

Part of that is what Jeff Kahn calls “sleep machismo.” North American culture has a penchant for touting how little sleep we can get by on. But more hours in the day doesn’t equal more productivity.

Kahn became interested in the relationship between sleep and athletic performance while studying health systems engineering at Northwestern University. Kahn and his friends parlayed their interest and research into the company Rise Science. Based in Chicago, the company provides sleep analytics and plans to help athletes improve sleep and coaches to manage training.

He convinces athletes of the importance of sleep with data. High school athletes who get eight or more hours of sleep were 70 percent less likely to get injured. Decision-making also improves with more sleep. In the world of football, it’s called “play execution” and there is a 5 percent increase in it per hour of sleep while mental errors decrease by 50 percent. Strength gains in the weight room also increased with more sleep.

“Before 1999, we thought sleep is for the brain and doesn’t have an impact on performance so if you don’t get enough of it, it’s not a huge deal,” Kahn said. “Post-1999, there has been a lot more research that inspired us. Yes, sleep does have a lot to do with how you feel. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes that we take for granted. Any performance you care about, so whether it’s athletic performance, if it’s weight management, if it’s your ability to pick up sarcasm or be emotionally healthy and confident, any of these things fundamentally goes back to the sleep you’re getting. It’s one of the most human things we can do and we aren’t getting enough of it.”

The science is just starting to develop new ways to collect sleep data. It can be as simple as a daily athlete survey (“How did you sleep last night?”) or it can be wearable technology which monitors heart rate, breathing and how many times you turn in your sleep.

Regardless of measurements, there are individual needs for sleep. Some people need more. Some need less. People can having varying circadian rhythms, meaning there really is such a thing as “morning people” and “night people.”

Growing businesses, like Kahn’s Rise Science, help tailor sleep plans to individuals.

“The core of it is making sure players understand why sleep benefits them and making it simple for them to take small changes over time for huge performance benefits.”

But here’s the thing – talk about getting more sleep and you automatically increase the difficulty in getting sleep.

“You might have a well-inten-tioned coach tell players to get more sleep tonight after the game, but those guys aren’t going to be able to wind down until five or six hours later,” Kahn said. “Managing the psychology of sleep is important, too. The more you think about it, the harder it is to get. You have to be very particular about when you decide to make a comment, what the tone is and what the message is.”

Because if you know that sleep is important and you’re worried about not getting sleep, you might just turn to pharmaceutical sleep aids.

The issue of using, with the potential to abuse, drugs such as Ambien was part of the discussion in 2013 during the NHL and NHL Players Association collective bargaining negotiations. That led to new rules that require teams to give players a minimum of four days off per month during the season and a minimum of nine hours between flight touch-down and the next practice.

“Still to this day for myself after games it’s tough to go to sleep,” said Gorges, an 11-year NHL veteran. “You don’t want to get into that regiment of trying to take things to help you sleep. I think you want to do everything as naturally as possible. I think that’s why it’s very important what the NHLPA did in the last CBA negotiations is the nine-hour rule of when you arrive at home, teams can’t have you come in because they know the importance of sleep and they don’t want guys taking sleeping pills to try to sleep. They want guys to get as much rest and sleep as they can naturally. I think people are trying to do the best for us to get that ability, like I said it’s not easy. You just deal with it the best you can.”

And lest you think sleep is only the province of older players, Marcus Foligno gets rather excited to talk about sleep and his status as a champion nap taker.

“Sleep is huge and I love to sleep,” said Foligno who turns 25 in August. “That’s one thing that’s a good topic for me. I’m a big believer that you need your eight hours before games and even just to feel relaxed. I’m a big believer in naps before games. I know some guys don’t take naps but I just feel you need to be rested, your body heals when it’s sleeping so that’s the biggest thing and it recovers well. I take two-hour naps before games.

“If you aren’t sleeping well, even if you’re not playing a physical activity, even if you’re at work or something like that, you’re going to not be a nice person, so that’s the biggest thing too is sleep helps with the mood. To bring your best every night, you need to make sure you’re getting eight hours of rest and making sure your body is ready for every game.”