6. The Consultant
Name: Cheri Mah
Title: Research Fellow at the UCSF Human Performance Center and UCSF School of Medicine and NBA sleep consultant
Why they're interesting: Pioneered the use of sleep optimization in pro sports
Back in 2002, Cheri Mah was running a study on sleep and cognition at Stanford University. By chance, some of the Stanford swim team had enrolled in the study, which required them to keep the sort of consistent, rigid sleep schedules that are rare among college kids. Overhauling their sleep, it turned out, paid off; several of them swam the best races of their lives. "I was fascinated by the swimmers' performance," said Mah, "setting multiple new personal records during the study alongside the cognitive and mood benefits we observed."
Mah hadn't intended to study sleep and athletic performance, but the swimmers' accidental success sparked her a-ha moment. Since then, under the guidance of her mentor, the famous Stanford researcher and "father of sleep medicine" William Dement, Mah has focused on sleep in high-performing athletes. Through studies on collegiate, semi-professional and professional athletes, Mah has shown that extended sleep leads to faster times, higher scores and sharper skills.
One focus of her work has been the impact of cross-country travel and demanding schedules on NBA players' performance. She even constructed a formula to figure out the games at which NBA teams are at a competitive disadvantage on account of their schedules. The formula, which has been adopted by other experts and sports stats nuts, accounts for factors including whether the game is home or away and how well-rested the opposing team's players are.
Mah zeroed in on sleep in athletes at the right time: The past five years have seen coaches and players start to prioritize sleep in a way they never had before. As a sleep consultant to the Golden State Warriors, among other elite athletes, Mah teaches teams and individual competitors how to develop sleep strategies that work with their tight schedules and optimize both sleep and recovery to boost their performance.
"It's great to see more athletes and teams keying in on sleep as a competitive advantage," said Mah. "My hope is that my research helps to better understand the impact of enhancing sleep, contributes to shaping the role of proper sleep in sports performance for athletes at all levels, and inspires many others to prioritize healthy sleep every day."
Mah has used her sleep expertise to help worldclass athletes run, dunk, hit and throw. But, she says, everyone can follow their lead. "Whether you're an elite athlete or a weekend warrior," said Mah, "healthy sleep is essential for each of us to be at our best."