Northwestern football players wear movement sensor armbands that track their sleep patterns. They also take naps.
Since Pat Fitzgerald became the coach in 2006, he has placed an unusual emphasis on his players’ sleeping behavior as a way to improve their performance. In the past, he has changed the times of practices and instituted team naps, but since the beginning of August, in collaboration with the university’s school of engineering, Fitzgerald has had his team undergo a sleep assessment. The idea is to assess the players’ sleep patterns and then suggest ways they can have more and sounder sleep.
The players began wearing movement sensor armbands during training camp, except when they are practicing or in the weight room. The sensors have mainly been used to track the quantity and quality of sleep each player gets. Fitzgerald plans to have his players wear them throughout the rest of the season. Although players are not required to wear the sensors, most do.
“At first, we didn’t really know much about sleep and we were just curious,” said defensive end Tyler Scott, a team captain. “But we really embraced it, and after a while, we got really competitive about sleep efficiency. We started checking our data every day.”
The study has already had an effect.
Before Northwestern’s season opener at California on Aug. 31, Fitzgerald shifted the team’s practice start times, nap times and meal times to a West Coast schedule in an attempt to minimize the effects of jet lag.
The kickoff was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. in California, which is 9:30 in Evanston, Ill. So the Wildcats began practices at 9:30 p.m., making bed time for most players sometime from 1 to 2 a.m. Fitzgerald did not hold any football activities in the early morning, allowing the players to sleep until 10 a.m.
Emma Adam, a Northwestern professor and an expert on sleep in adolescents and young adults, said she had seen individuals log and study their own sleep patterns, but she has never seen an assessment done on this big a group of athletes.
“What they’re doing is taking existing sleep research and translating it into a program designed for their athletes that they hope will improve not only athletic performance, but also a whole bunch of other things,” Adam said. “Sleep has effects on cognition, your attention, your memory, your mood, your metabolism, your appetite — it affects so many different things.”
This is not the first time that Fitzgerald and his coaching staff have experimented with sleep schedules.
Midway through last season, Fitzgerald noticed that his players appeared sluggish during an afternoon game. After conferring with a few players, he learned that many had been taking afternoon naps during the week because of their class schedules. Fitzgerald then implemented a mandatory nap time on game days.
It was a source of jokes at first, but the players told Fitzgerald that the extra rest was beneficial. The results also were positive — the team finished 10-3, only the third time Northwestern had won at least 10 games.
In 2007, Fitzgerald’s second year, he experimented with moving practice times from the afternoon to early in the morning.
“We were one of the first and certainly probably one of the most high-profile to make that full commitment to morning practices,” said Tory Lindley, an associate athletic director and the director of athletic training services. “Since then, I’ve heard from a number of head athletic trainers around the country who have called us about our schedule and who have since moved and changed their schedules.”
The result, Lindley said, was that the players were receiving better nutrition before and after practice, and that their performances were steadier and more predictable.
Fitzgerald’s emphasis on sleep may still draw raised eyebrows from some. But he has more victories than any other football coach in Northwestern’s history, and the Wildcats figure to be a force in the Big Ten this season.
That might be enough to prompt other teams to consider the possibilities of monitoring their players’ sleep patterns.
“Through all the things that you have to do as a coach to try to help your guys perform at a high level and peak at the right time, we’re always trying to find ways to improve what we’re doing and what we’re teaching,” he said, “and this is kind of the new frontier.”