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You lose if you don’t snooze: the importance of sleep for grand finalists

Grand Final week is underway and the excitement is building for what will be an historic weekend.

And while fans of the lucky teams competing in the NRL and AFL grand finals will have many sleepless nights this week, spare a thought for the players.

Anticipation over the ‘Big Dance’, excitement about running out in front of tens of thousands of people, the pressure of not letting your teammates down can make it difficult for even the most experienced footballer to get a good night’s rest.

On top of that, certain players have not slept in their own beds for more than three months with the Victorian-based clubs forced to stay in Queensland hubs for the duration of the season.

While exercise, diet and training will be crucial for the players competing this weekend, sports performance scientist Dr Stephen Bird, an Associate Professor in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Southern Queensland, said sleep was the secret weapon to winning.

“Teams invest a lot of money in making sure players eat, train and recover right, but the importance of sleep in improving mood, performance and concentration is often overlooked,” he said.

“Professional athletes need to be disciplined with their sleep so they approach the match with a clear mind and total focus, which I believe is more important than anything else.”

While poor sleep can cause health problems such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental illness, it can also have a significant impact on athletic performance.

Associate Professor Bird is currently examining the importance of sleep in the National Basketball Association as the only Australian researcher involved in an international collaboration.

The research team is led by world-leading sleep scientist Dr Meeta Singh, who was recruited last year by Major League Baseball side, the Washington Nationals, to help them win the World Series.

Associate Professor Bird said this weekend’s NRL and AFL grand finals could be won or lost before the first kick-off or bounce.

“The build-up to a grand final is chaotic, and even though this year will be a lot different due to the COVID-19 situation, players will still have to deal with a lot of distractions that may keep them up at night,” he said.

“Some coaches may deviate from their usual routine to try to gain an edge, but the greatest challenge is to keep things as normal as possible leading into the grand final so players don’t get caught up in the excitement and stay focused on the job at hand.”

Associate Professor Bird said players who skimp on sleep or don’t follow a good sleep routine were less likely to perform at their peak level.

“What happens when you have a poor night’s sleep? You wake up with a foggy head, which affects your decision-making, slows your reaction time and contributes to errors,” he said.

“For Formula 1 drivers, a reaction time of one hundredth of a second is the difference between hitting a wall and making a turn.

“For footballers, every split-second decision they make on the field, more often than not under extreme pressure, needs to be a good one otherwise it could cost their team a try or a goal and ultimately the match.”

Associate Professor Bird has previously worked with three National Basketball League teams, including 10-time NBL champions the Perth Wildcats, Scotland’s basketball (Commonwealth Games) and rugby league (World Cup) teams, and Indonesia’s badminton teams for the 2008 and 2016 Olympic Games.

He also led Basketball New Zealand’s COVID-19 Framework Project Team in designing guidelines for safe return to training for players following COVID-19 restrictions. It was the first of its kind to be recognised by international experts in the sports science field and was published in the New Zealand Journal of Sports Medicine last month.

Penrith plays Melbourne in the NRL grand final in Sydney on Sunday, while Richmond will do battle with Geelong in the AFL decider in Brisbane on Saturday in what will be the first AFL grand final played outside of Victoria and under lights.

Top tips to sleep like a pro

  • Maintain a regular schedule of going to bed and waking up
  • Avoid coffee and alcohol in the hours before bed
  • Maintain a cool room temperature comfortable for sleeping
  • Keep room dark by using blackout curtains or eye shades
Bird's eye view of football field
While exercise, diet and training will be crucial for the players competing, sleep is the secret weapon to winning.