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Professional athletes and their managers often make a point of their hard-working, early to rise attitude which allows them to work and train harder than rivals. For example Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale was known for arriving at the training ground at first light hours before his teammates, while his former manager Harry Redknapp has a daily alarm set for 4 AM.
To many this would seem not only unsurprising, but quite natural. After all sportsmen and athletes are (supposedly, at least) highly paid, skilled and motivated individuals. So why are many NBA teams scrapping morning training and encouraging their players to get 8-10 hours’ sleep per night?
There are two key elements to training, the work itself and the ability to apply that training unthinkingly in real game situations. That requires procedural memory, the part of memory which deals with motor skills and learned actions, often on a subconscious basis. Just as we often don’t have to think consciously about how to drink from a cup or enter a password, sports players rely on learning and “muscle memory” for most of their performance.
As we sleep, the brain “consolidates” new memories formed that day into long term storage. Interestingly however, studies have shown that only the later, deeper phases of sleep (REM and slow-wave-sleep) which only happens later in the night. Participants who slept earlier performed better on “declarative” memory tasks (facts and figures), but those who slept later performed far better on tests of procedural memory. Skimping on sleep to impose tougher training can easily be seen as counter-intuitive as the gains from work are negated by the brain’s diminished capacity to learn.
Sportsmen can also benefit from timing their sleep regime to maximise performance at game time. A study of female hockey players found that those who slept earlier experienced their peak of physical performance much sooner than night owls. Some teams now plan their training and sleep schedules in advance of important fixtures, to ensure players are at their best during a big match.