Have you noticed when you don’t get a good quality sleep your mental and physical performance become sluggish? On the flip side, have you noticed when you get seven to nine hours of sleep you’re at peak performance? You’re sharp mentally and emotionally. Your ability to process information, problem solve, and articulate your ideas is fast, precise, and confident. You have more patience and are happier. Your motor skills seem to be better as well. You seem to type faster and make less mistakes. You move faster, you have better balance and coordination. You endurance seems better and you feel stronger. Is sleep that important to make you feel superhuman and for you to be at your peak performance?
Tennis and Sleep
Because I’m passionate about tennis, I’m going to use playing tennis as an example on how sleep effects performance. As you read this, you can think about how the examples I give apply to your daily activities, hobbies, and communications with yourself and others.
I’ve been an avid tennis player now for almost four years. I love the physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual aspects of tennis.
Physically, I love smacking the tennis ball back and forth with my hitting partner and opponent. I love the explosive side to side movement and sprinting. I love the challenge of hitting the ball properly and the hand and eye coordination involved with the sport. I love wearing out my opponents on the endurance side. Especially when they are twenty years younger than I am. 🙂
Mentally, I also love the strategy involved with tennis. It’s like a chess game. You have to figure out your opponent’s weaknesses, their patterns, and move them around the court enough to hit winning shots. You have to think fast and instinctually. It’s like a power play in hockey. The players keep moving the puck around back and forth in order to open up an opportunity for the “kill” shot to score a goal.
I find the emotional and spiritual side of tennis to be the most intriguing. You have to be patient and relaxed in your head or brain in order to play well. You have to be in a zen-like state, enjoy yourself, and enjoy the competition. I find when I’m in that state of being, my grip on the racket is more relaxed, my strokes are more fluent and clean, I’m faster, my hand and eye coordination is faster and more accurate, and I can hit the ball with good accuracy. I’m more patient with myself when I make mistakes. This leads to a more fulfilling match, win or lose.
Does the act of playing consistently or practicing make my physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual game better? For sure. However, what I have observed is if I sleep well, I play well. If I don’t sleep well, I don’t play well. As sleep expert and neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker says in his book ‘Why We Sleep’, “Practice does not make perfect. It is practice, followed by a night of sleep, that leads to perfection.”
“Practice does not make perfect. It is practice, followed by a night of sleep, that leads to perfection.” – Dr. Matthew Walker (sleep expert and neuroscientist)
When I don’t sleep well, I’m not as fast in my legs or in my reflexes. My hand and eye coordination is off. My endurance isn’t as good. So this turns into a game where I can’t chase down as many balls or I can’t get myself into a proper position to strike the ball clean. So I mishit the ball, make more errors, or give the opponent easier balls to hit winners against myself. I’m not as patient. So I don’t wait out my opponent and move them around the court and I rush my shots more. I become more tense in my head, more tense gripping my racket, and I force or “muscle” my shots. The game becomes less enjoyable and fulfilling.
Does what I observe in my performance align with the research on sleep? In short, yes.
The following information has been extracted from Dr. Matthew Walker’s book ‘Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams’.
Stages of Sleep: Learning, Brain Restoration, and Memory Retention
Each stage of sleep, NREM sleep (light sleep known as stages 1 and 2 and deep sleep known as stages 3 and 4) and REM sleep (dream sleep), has different benefits for your brain. Lose any of these stages of sleep and your brain won’t work as well.
During a night of sleep we go through all of these stages of sleep. Every ninety minutes the brain cycles from deep sleep, to light sleep, to REM sleep, to light sleep and back to deep sleep. The first half of sleep is dominated by deep sleep and the second half of sleep is dominated by REM sleep.
In our wake state, we have experiences and learn things. In our NREM sleep, we store and strengthen those experiences and facts in our brain as memories. In our REM sleep, we connect those new experiences and facts with past experiences and facts to build and strengthen our knowledge and skills. This includes coming up with creative ideas and solving problems.
The phrase “sleep on it” holds true when we are struggling with learning a new skill or having a hard time coming up with a solution to a problem. I’m sure everyone has experienced a solution to a problem or has come up with a creative idea after a good night of sleep.
Sleep Spindles and REM Sleep
Powerful burst of electrical signals in stage 2 of deep sleep called sleep spindles help refresh our memories. The more sleep spindles we have at night, the more we restore our brain’s ability to learn by the time we wake up the next morning. Most of the sleep spindles occur in the late morning hours in between long hours of REM sleep. If you sleep six hours or less, because you wake up too early, you deprive your brain the ability to refresh itself, the ability to learn, the ability to come up with creative ideas and solutions to problems, and ultimately the ability to reach peak performance.
If you sleep six hours or less you deprive your brain the ability to refresh itself, the ability to learn, the ability to come up with creative ideas and solutions to problems, and ultimately the ability to reach peak performance.
Deep NREM Sleep
Furthermore, if you were to deprive yourself of deep NREM sleep early in the night you would be depriving yourself of memory retention. The slow brainwaves of deep NREM sleep transport the short-term memories we gained through the day (experiences and facts) from a temporary storage site in our brain called the hippocampus to a long-term memory site called the cortex (the big part of your brain).
If you were to deprive yourself of deep NREM sleep early in the night you would be depriving yourself of memory retention.
“Muscle Memory” and Improving Your Skills
As Dr. Matthew Walker states in his book ‘Why We Sleep’, “muscle memory” is a misnomer. Muscles have no memory, as a muscle can not work unless it is connected to a brain, and a muscle can not store skills that are learned. Muscle memory is really Brain Memory. You can train and strengthen a muscle to develop better repetitive skills, but the repetition is learned and stored within the brain only. (1)
Remember, when we sleep, we review and strengthen our learning with sleep spindles. So when we practice a skill like typing, painting, tennis, hockey, or any other skill, a FULL seven to nine hours of sleep will improve that motor skill and “smooth” out movements we may have been struggling with.
In fact, good quality sleep can improve your skilled performance by 20-35% from the day prior to practicing your skill. (2) Sleep also helps the brain automate movement so you don’t have to think while you are performing. Performance happens “naturally” in that zen-like state or in “flow”.
When we practice a skill like typing, painting, tennis, hockey, or any other skill, a FULL seven to nine hours of sleep will improve that motor skill and “smooth” out movements we may have been struggling with. In fact, good quality sleep can improve your skilled performance by 20-35% from the day prior to practicing your skill.
There are numerous studies showing how sleep improves motor skills in a variety of activities. Sleep improves performance in sports like tennis, basketball, baseball, soccer, football, and rowing. (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) Even circus clowns and street performers can reach peak performance in their juggling skills following a good night sleep. (11) Musicians will also notice improvements in their fine motor skills following a good nights of sleep. (12, 13)
Sleep is also vital for decreasing inflammation that occurs after physical activity and repairing muscles after using them. Sleep also restores energy in your cells with glucose and glycogen.
Strategy for attaining peak performance while sleeping
Before going to bed, review only those experiences and facts that you want to hold on to in order to master your skill and knowledge. Know that if you sleep well, your brain will serve you well in helping you attain peak performance.
Sleep deprivation and poor performance
On the flip side getting less than seven to nine hours of sleep a night is harmful to performance in the following ways:
- we will tire out sooner physically (20 percent less time)
- our ability too use oxygen is reduced significantly (aerobic capacity)
- reduced limb extension and vertical jump height
- decreases in peak and sustained strength
- impaired cardiovascular, respiration and metabolic functions (faster rates of lactic acid build up, reduced oxygen in blood, increased carbon dioxide in blood)
- ability to cool down after physical activity is impaired
- causes problems with brain cognition, memory, judgement, decision making, and general mental performance (14)
- decreases your ability to handle stress (less patient) (14)
- increased chance of injuries (15)
In a previous article, I mentioned how one-third to two-thirds of adults in developed nations don’t get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night during the week. Furthermore, there is a trend for adolescents on a global level not getting enough sleep as well. (16)
As a whole, we do not make sleep a priority and many of us don’t realize how our modern day lifestyles sabotage our sleep. Many of us also feel we are too busy to get sleep. We fall victim to our “to do” list and feel we are productive on six hours or less of sleep per night. We are only kidding ourselves. As a result, our ability to attain peak performance on a consistent level is compromised as is our health.
Now I would like to hear from you. How does sleep or lack of sleep affect your daily performance as well as your performance in your chosen sport?