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NFL Teams Looking to Naps for Competitive Edge

As the football season swings into high gear, some of the National Football League’s teams are paying close attention to research about the power of sleep and the benefits of an afternoon nap. The Detroit Lions is one of the teams that is taking naptime most seriously, and there are very specific times when you can catch players taking a snooze in some of the most unusual places. An article in the Detroit News recently profiled the team’s nap routine, and revealed that the Lions running back George Winn naps every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon when the team is available to the media for interviews. Where does he nap? On the floor, directly in front of his locker. He simply takes a towel from the shower, wraps it around his laundry bag to make a pillow and lays right down until 12:38, when his alarm goes off. The media is expected to leave him alone so that he can get his rest.

The Detroit team doesn’t have many options on where they sleep, but they understand its importance so they make do with what they have. Many of the team’s players are napping these days because sleep doctor Dr. Meeta Singh, of the Henry Ford Health System, told them that it is one of the most important things they can do to improve their on-field performance levels.

Just how important is napping? Important enough that many NFL teams are promoting it to boost performance. Just how important is napping? Important enough that many NFL teams are promoting it to boost performance.

It was coach Jim Caldwell’s idea to bring Dr. Singh into the team’s fold this year so that the players would truly understand what a difference sleep can make. Caldwell has made several changes this year, including renovating the team’s cafeteria and and shifting their practice schedule, and all of these seemingly minor details are making a big difference in how the group is playing and feeling. Caldwell feels strongly about the impact of sleep, and knows that it is something that does not receive enough priority in our general education so he needs to make sure his players get the message. “What happens to young guys oftentimes is they don’t get enough rest because of the fact that they still have a lot of energy,” he says. “We brought her in to give us kind of an overview of what a good night’s sleep consists of and then how to go about it if you don’t happen to get a good night’s sleep.”

The need for sleep is about more than the energy that is expended on the field. In the case of George Winn, the player commutes in to Allen Park every morning from his parents’ home in West Bloomfield, and in order to get there on time he has to wake up at 6 a.m. “I’ve got to get that nap in,” he says. “I feel so much better and so much more concentrated and rejuvenated to go to my next meeting and then go out to practice.”

Winn is not alone on the Detroit squad in scheduling his naps. Montell Owens, who is a member of special teams, has found his own spot in a storage room, and he heads off each day to take a power nap. Dr. Singh says that short bouts of sleep can help with recovery from football. Owens, who is currently on injured reserve, intends to do everything he can to get back on the field. Other players have been dreaming about a variety of options that might be created to allow football players to nap in comfort. Linebacker Ashlee Palmer suggested that somebody should invent a locker that has a pull out bed built into in, and Owens agrees that there is a need for something like that. “We’re here more than we are at home,” he said.

One of the biggest difficulties that players who want to nap encounter is in finding a time to fit it in with their hectic schedule, but cornerback Rashean Mathis has found that he has certain days that are slower than others. He naps on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. “Sleep matters, and we’re in a business where a lot of young guys don’t know the value of rest. It’s something that is needed in all walks of life, especially when you’re in a high-performance business where you’re exerting as much energy as we are on a daily basis,” he said. Other players on the team, including safety James Ihedigbo and wide receiver Corey Fuller, are struggling with how to nap without putting themselves into the position of being unable to fall asleep at night.

Caldwell credits his knowledge of the importance of sleep to his years when he coached in Indianapolis. Though he was there from 2002 through 2011, it was only during his final three years that he was exposed to information about sleep habits by members of his staff. In fact, the team even consulted with the military about the subject. One of the reasons that the Colts had needed to understand the importance of sleep was that they needed to be able to recover from jet lag following an exhibition game that they played in Tokyo, and it was from that point on that the subject began to be treated more seriously. Caldwell realizes that even trips across the country, and particularly to different time zones, can have a big impact on his players’ sleep cycles and how well they perform on the field. That is why he decided to bring Dr. Singh and her expertise on board.

Caldwell understands that it is not just his players that need sleep. His coaching staff also needs to be fresh, and he understands that when they don’t get enough sleep their cognitive performance isn’t at its top potential. Unfortunately, he doesn’t hold himself to the same standard, and admits that he only gets about four hours of sleep per night, and does not nap. “I can’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t wake up before the sunrise. I’ve always been an early riser, and I don’t sleep much.”

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