BRIEF: Sleep Helps Players Excel in NBA Finals

Changes in attitudes toward sleep in elite athletes are enhancing their performance.

Image credits: meunierd via Shutterstock

Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- The Cleveland Cavaliers will face the Golden State Warriors in game one of the NBA Finals tonight. It's the fourth straight year the two teams have competed for the NBA title. Among the other factors that help both teams compete at the highest level is a simple recovery tool that's available to everyone: sleep.

On Wednesday at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Minneapolis, Cheri Mah highlighted the issue. Mah researches the relationship between sleep and athletic performance at the University of California, San Francisco and consults with many sports leagues and teams -- including the Warriors.

Athletes, Mah said, are much like the rest of us. They often don't sleep enough and pride themselves on their ability to endure tiredness. But that kind of attitude can inhibit their performance.

"We truly are not healthy unless our sleep is healthy," Mah said.

Slowly but surely, attitudes may be changing among elite athletes. The NBA has changed the way they schedule regular season games to avoid the inevitable fatigue that can come from playing as many as five games in a week, and the higher risk of injury that comes with it. Some teams now have nap rooms for their players, she said.

Mah said that several notable athletes from the U.S. team at the 2018 Winter Olympics say they aim to sleep eight, nine, or even 10 hours each night.

Mah pointed to Warriors forward Andre Iguodala as someone who greatly benefitted from changing his sleep habits. As a young NBA player, he would stay up late playing video games, sleep a couple of hours before practice, then take an afternoon nap, for a total of 4-6 hours of sleep daily, Mah said. As Iguodala adjusted his sleep patterns and behavior, his sleep time grew to 7-8 hours per night. Mah said the changes corresponded with improvements in many major performance measures, including his shooting percentage for free throws and 3-pointers. He also committed fewer fouls and turnovers.

Iguodala will need the extra rest now, as he suffered a leg injury in a prior game against the Houston Rockets and won't be competing in game one. As Cavaliers' star LeBron James told reporters after suffering a minor injury in his previous series, sleep is "the best recovery you can possibly get."


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Chris Gorski is the Senior Editor of Inside Science. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.