The Foundation of Elite Performance

As the buzzer signals the end of a game, Philadelphia 76ers star Tobias Harris also recognizes it as a signal for bedtime. Immediately after a game, he starts getting ready for bed—not exactly what you would expect from an NBA athlete.

When he gets to the locker room, he hooks up to a breathing belt and heartrate monitor and then begins what he calls “quiet time”. It’s a deep breathing routine aimed at lowering his heartrate and slowing his breathing.  He doesn’t just hope for a good night’s sleep; he actively works to improve the quality and quantity of his sleep.

And no, he’s not completely crazy! Like most normal adults, he enjoys watching some TV before bed. But for him, TV and training go hand-in-hand. His iPad is connected to an EEG machine, which reads his brainwaves. Every day for 45 minutes, while he watches his favorite shows, he must maintain a certain level of focus, or else the show turns off. This relatively new “neurofeedback training” is becoming popular with athletes in all sports to improve their mental focus and their sleep.

Harris not only endures jokes from his teammates about his “early bedtime”, but he sacrifices a great deal to ensure he sleeps long and well. Not easy when you are making $16 million a year! Some might argue he should relax a little and enjoy all that hard-earned money. But Tobias, like many other top professional athletes in the world, has acknowledged the overwhelming research on the importance of sleep.

There is a great deal of misinformation and unhealthy stereotypes when it comes to becoming an “elite” athlete. There is probably none more harmful than the belief that if you want to be great, you have to sacrifice sleep. Messages from motivational speakers only perpetuate this belief, like Eric Thomas’s famous line, Most of you don’t want success as much as you want to sleep.” This has led to coaches, athletes, and professionals believing that if they want to be great, they have to work harder and sleep less. And legendary stories of athletes like Kobe Bryant working out all night have created a negative stigma around sleep.

In the last 20 years, both coaches and athletes have appeared to gain awareness and appreciation for the importance of nutrition; something that wasn’t the case 20 years ago when I played basketball. Now, people understand you cannot reach your potential without proper nutrition. Well, research has shown sleep to be even more important than nutrition to reach peak performance, but sleep is still rarely talked about, and few are intentional about planning their sleep.

Four Reasons to Get Sleep as an Athlete

Roger Federer, Lebron James, and Usain Bolt all claim to need 10-12 hours of sleep to be at their best. Why is it so important?

  1. Recovery: When Vince Carter was asked how he was still playing in NBA at 42 years old, the answer was one word: “Sleep.”
  2. Less Mistakes: Sleep improves your ability to focus and concentrate. Research has shown that tennis players received a 42% increase in accuracy with the recommended minimum of eight hours of sleep.
  3. Faster Reactions: Most sports require quick reactions and decision-making. Getting the necessary sleep has shown to improve our reactions and decision-making by at least 4.3%.
  4. Improved Physical Performance: Our cardiovascular and muscular function dramatically decreases when we sleep less than eight hours a night. According to one study, “After four days of restricted sleep, athletes’ maximum bench-press dropped [by] 20 pounds.”

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Don’t Just Dream of Being Lebron; Sleep Like Lebron

But it’s not just quantity; it’s quality of sleep. Lebron James believes “there’s nothing more important than optimal REM sleep”. He spends over a million dollars a year to optimize his physical health.

But you don’t need all the gadgets Harris has, or a million-dollar budget like Lebron to improve your sleep. In fact, the majority of his sleep improvements cost nothing; they are just changes to his habits. Here are the three most important things he does to ensure he gets optimal sleep:

  1. Sets room temperature between 68-70 degrees.
  2. Uses blackout curtains to keep the room dark.
  3. No electronics (e.g., TV or phone) for 30-45 minutes before bedtime.

He’s not the only one disconnecting from technology. Golden State Warriors star Andre Iguodala doesn’t turn on the TV in his room, and he leaves his phone on airplane mode when he turns in.

Try This

  • Review Your Sleep: Many of today’s phones (like the iPhone) can track your sleep. Review a week of your sleep and then reflect on whether you need to make some adjustments.
  • Don’t Bring Your Phone to Bed: Try implementing the #1 habit to help you get more and better After you turn your alarm on, put your phone in the other room or on your dresser away from the bed. This simple habit will help you:
    1. Fall asleep quicker.
    2. Improve the quality of your sleep.
    3. Stop hitting the snooze button in the morning.