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Basketball Player’s Performance Shows Performance of Sleep

Seems like no matter where you turn these days you’ll find a story on the news or a new product touting the importance of getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Though there are certain naysayers who claim that sleeping that long is a waste of potential productivity, and several industry executives who will proudly point to their own ability to function at a high level on just a few hours of sleep per night, the scientific community says that the ability to perform at a high level on so little sleep is either imagined or exceedingly rare. Those who question the need to get a full night’s sleep on a consistent level need look no farther than the recent experience of New York Knicks forward Jason Smith.

Smith recently signed a one-year, $3.2 million dollar contract to join the Knicks, and you’d think that for that kind of money, the Knicks would be getting a high production player. Instead, during the first half of the season Smith was averaging just seven points and three rebounds in eighteen minutes per game, and his shooting percentage from the field was just 42 percent — not at all what the Knicks had in mind. Though Smith doesn’t like to make excuses, there may be a good one for his poor play. The forward and his wife Kristy Smith became the proud parents of baby Ella Rose on October 9th, and as much as they have enjoyed every moment of parenthood, it has definitely been keeping both of them up at night.

Jason's late nights had a profound impact on how Smith was performing on the court. Jason's late nights had a profound impact on how Smith was performing on the court.

Like most newborns, Ella did not sleep through the night initially, and the late night wakeups apparently had a profound impact on how Smith was performing on the court. “The first couple of weeks it was a lot of sleep deprivation for sure. As a first time parent, you think you know what you’re in for. But when you’re actually there and she’s crying in the middle of the night, as a parent, you automatically tune it in. You can’t just tune it out and try to go back to sleep.”

Smith’s experience is no different from that of any other new parent, but his visibility is, and so is the physically demanding nature of his work. Though every new mother and father’s mental and physical performance is impaired by sleep deprivation, very few of them earn their living by competing against world class athletes. Accoding to Dr. Ana Krieger, the Medical Director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine, “It can affect quantitative performance and physical performance. Your speed and accuracy and reaction time are heavily dependent on adequate sleep. So if someone is not sleeping the proper amount oor having the quality of sleep required during the night, all of the neurological functions are affected.”

Speaking to his own experience, Smith agrees. If forced to guess, he would say that he was probably getting approximately five or six hours of sleep per night when Ella was first born, but that sleep was coming in the same intervals as her feeding schedule. So rather than sleeping that five or six hours in one solid segment (which would still have put him into a state of sleep deprivation), he was sleeping in just one and a half or two hour spurts. The end result was that when he walked in to practice each morning, he knows that he did so with “eyes glazed, just tired as can be. But you still have a job to do.” Smith doesn’t like using his daughter’s birth as an excuse. “It’s been a blessing, really,” he says, echoing the feelings of parents everywhere. But he also acknowledges, now that he has experienced it personally, that “sleep deprivation is one of the hardest things to go through when you’re trying to perform at your highest level.”

Dr. Krieger agrees. “It can affect precision and accuracy of movement and speed. During sleep, the entire body and muscles relax. By restoring the energy in the body and the brain, you can improve muscle activity as well.”

For those who question whether his experience is just an excuse, or whether getting enough sleep can actually make that big a difference in the play of a professional athlete, Smith points to the change in his performance over the last several weeks, coinciding with the act that Ella has started sleeping through the night. He’s more than tripled his assists per game from 1.1 to 3.8, and his defensive play is showing a marked improvement, with New York previously allowing 1.17 points per possession when Ella wasn’t sleeping, and now registering at 1.08 over the last several games since she has started sleeping for longer stretches. His personal average has increased to 10.5 points per game and 6 rebounds. That means he’s scoring four more points and 2.8 more rebounds than back when she was waking up – and waking her parents up – every hour and a half. Speaking of the improvement in Smith’s play, Derek Fisher said, “His level of activity has gone up tremendously.”

The same can be true of the number of minutes that he is playing, so that may also have something to do with his improved statistics. He is now playing 32 minutes per game, where during the first half of the season he was only playing 18 minutes a night. But Smith definitely believes that getting a better night’s sleep now that Ella is sleeping soundly has been a big boon to his play and performance. “If you can get some sleep at night, you’re a much more personable person during the day. And you’re much more attentive to detail and practices. And you have a lot more energy for games too. Just going through the grind of an NBA season is tough and tiring and then you add having a baby on top of it – it’s even that much harder.”

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