Nick Littlehales has advised Real Madrid, MUFC, Team Sky, the British Olympic Association and England’s senior male rugby and football players, among many others, on their recovery programmes, becoming known around the world simply as the sport sleep coach.
He took a break from a hectic book launch schedule to tell Alex Griffiths how everyone could benefit from their own light bulb moment.
Ninety-minute cycles are certainly something a ref can relate to, but could you explain why 90, not 60, is one of the key elements in the strategies you present to athletes?
It’s a first step in changing the language around sleep, which everyone takes for granted. For so many years there has been no education at all, no academic study allocated to a subject seen as some big black hole that is beyond our control. Only the military looked at it seriously prior to 15 years or so ago, and it was only studied by academics as part of other clinical areas.
The experts have always rationalised somehow that, because sleep in itself is not a performance criteria, why discuss it?
So we can start the process by asking players, staff, and yes, referees too, whom I would treat as individuals as opposed to teams by the way, how many hours they really need. The problem with hours as opposed to cycles is that we all start with a point of wake, or the daily time you check by looking at your alarm clock to see when you have to get up.
Well, the way you monitor it clinically is by taking periods of 90 minutes, which is, purely by coincidence, the length of a game, and counting backwards.
Excuse the jargon but the R90, with the R standing for Recovery, is a polyphasic approach, which reflects the fact that before the light bulb came along humans took their sleep in naps and three or four chunks a day, as opposed to one block, and it was the same all over the world.
It’s such an ingrained part of the macho culture, not just in sport, to proudly deny ourselves sleep. I noted it again in the coverage of the UK referendum in June, where politicians were boasting of operating on no sleep at all… Why are habits taking so long to change?
At last the health ministers of the world and the corporations of America see the value both in increased well-being, life expectancy and fiscal self-preservation.
For so long public and private sectors have seen sleep as this black hole they have no control over, so they now literally appear to see the industry of sleep and/or recovery as a wasted opportunity and are making up for lost time.
Mine is not a sports science book, I’d like to think it’s a very accessible ‘how to’, and as soon as you work out whether you’re a morning or an evening person, in other words what your chronotype is, anyone can get started. Gareth Bale is a night owl, for example, so he needs to prepare for matches accordingly.
A big part of it revolves around not forcing sleep on ourselves, because sleep deprivation is the same as bad sleep or sleep that leads to additional physical problems.
Spreading out the cycles, even as few as three cycles of 90 minutes at a time, is preferable to interrupted nights spent staring at that alarm clock. Routines can be altered that take the pressure off ourselves, whether it’s a student, a shiftworker or a referee juggling a job and a couple of games a week.
Mine is the last generation who knows what it is like to be without a constant phone or device. The next generation I have found has less baggage, they get it, and see it in terms of ‘why deprive yourself vital advantages’, and ‘why not invest in me being at my very best’?
Having said that, I know grannies who get their head around it, too!
There’s an anecdote in the book which reminded me of a coincidental conversation in a Boston cab this reporter had with a senior member of the Nigerian federation after they had topped their World Cup group in 1994! Bizarrely, he wanted my opinion, hailing from “the birthplace of the game” on whether or not to let wives stay in the same hotel as the players…
I have to give my ghostwriter credit for that one! It’s a quote from the colourful Dutch coach of Nigeria at the time, Clemens Westerhof. Basically he had a theory that, while the outside world has this dual image of athletes being more active in bed than most people, shall we say, and there remained a school of thought which dictated they abstain before a fight or a race or a game, it’s not sex itself that is detrimental to preparation.
Instead, he insisted that it’s the going out looking for partners with whom to have sex that is far more likely to tire them out, and he had a point.
So how are your strategies typically received when you go into a room full of professional footballers?
As the man who put Slumberland on the shirts of Oldham Athletic back in the nineties, I had to grow quite a thick skin early on when it came to piss-taking!
Times have changed since my first session with the Arsenal squad, which led to a couple of players taking the subject less than seriously. I recently presented to the Brighton and Hove Albion squad and it was a different story.
Chris Hughton, the manager, was all for it when Adam Brett approached me down there, because he saw the urgent need for an intervention in the lifestyles of some of the younger lads.
Put it this way, before I had even left the building after my talk there was a tweet sent by Glenn Murray [scorer of a hat-trick v Norwich in October] saying how amazed he was that what he had expected to be some boring lecture had not mentioned sleep once. He added that what he had just heard was going to change the rest of his life.
Now we have Manchester United advertising Chinese memory foam, and what has allowed that to happen is that the people at the top of the club evidently do not feel it will open them up to ridicule. The difference between their unveiling of another commercial partner and what neighbours City are doing, however, tells a story.
Is this where commercial requirements and the pursuit of sporting advantage, where secrecy might be a better option, potentially come into conflict?
It’s a Pandora’s Box, really, without even touching on the subject of wearable technology, which we can address later if you like. While my advice to United was that this pillow deal represents a fantastic step, whether or not the money is coming from China or anywhere you care to mention, you only have to look at the website of the partner concerned to see there’s nothing special there when it comes to improving sleeping habits.
At City’s Etihad complex on the other hand, it’s all about doing everything possible not to hamper recovery and they are pioneers of the UK field in many ways. They don’t have the kind of pods they have installed at five thousand pounds a throw at United’s AON training complex, because you can’t take them with you to the hotel on the eve of an away game, it’s not translatable!
They also have the academy lads next to the first team accomodation, no difference between them. City’s priority when it comes to their players’ sleep does not lie in signing deals.
Southampton are another good example of investing in a serious programme, Wolves too, who have started down the road of testing and monitoring their players at home.
As soon as we started at Southampton [then manager] Ronald Koeman and his brother were all over it, because they could see the potential for marginal gains. Dr Steve Baynes, who I’d met working with Team GB and Team Sky, brought me in at Southampton to put in sleep and recovery sessions, and he has kept up the good work!
It’s a two-way street commercially though surely? You’ve mentioned books, after all, and there’s your website…
Yes, my publishers have me on a hectic schedule from Radio 4 to Daily Mail to this or that lifestyle magazine, that’s right. They have worked out the optimum date too, taking into account when the clocks went back, a gap in press due to the international football break, the best time for self-help books and so on, but what I’m trying to do is bigger than selling a book.
I was also asked to do the chapter devoted to sport in The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington [of Huff Post fame] which came out earlier in 2016 and shows what a mainstream subject it has become.
Even so, who is out there teaching referees about recovery, for example? Remember, it’s us that teach our kids our habits and the industry I’m in suddenly finds itself very vulnerable to a psychology, hypnotherapy, wearable-led bandwagon.
Forgive the pun, but the sleep labs were slow to wake up and now there’s a danger of market saturation in sleep aids, sometimes incidentally giving us data we don’t fully know what to do with yet, and abuse of sleeping tablets reaching epidemic levels in many parts of the world.
I’ve just returned from a conference boasting 400+ delegates in Cape Town, South Africa and in some respects we continue to wrestle with more questions than answers!
In part two we talk to the sleep coach about referee-specific recovery issues, both for the elite and the grassroots official, and provide a shortlist of ways to kick-start your own, tailor-made recovery programme. Sleep by Nick Littlehales, published by Penguin Life, a Trade Paperback, is out now.