College football programs around the country all boast various levels of talent, evident in the vastly competitive recruiting cycles that culminate each February. Once those players arrive on campus, the mentality of coaches changes from salesmanship to craftsmanship.
The goal: Developing each player so they reach their potential each Saturday. Traditionally, coaches focuses on rigorous weight lifting routines, in-depth film sessions and focused practice sessions. But recently coaches are acknowledging that recovery and, more importantly, sleep are decisive factors in optimal performance.
With numerous distractions in front of their student-athletes that often cause rest to be sacrificed, coaches around the country are concerned with the sleep habits of their players. Some have relied on scientific methods while others have taken a more parental approach. Here are four programs that hope better sleep will pave the way to victory.
Incoming freshmen on this Division 1 team may have originally thought beginning college meant more independence and freedom from supervision. Head coach Pat Narduzzi temporarily put the kibosh on that. A first-year head coach, Narduzzi was known for his stifling defenses as Michigan State's defensive coordinator. Now he’s stifling his players by moving into the dorms during the Panthers’ training camp. While he lacks the scientific wherewithal, his presence institutes authority off the field. When he says it’s bedtime, his players will certainly listen.
SEC football programs have the largest support staffs in the country, with every program trying to get an edge in college football’s most talent-laden conference. So head coach Butch Jones, under the guidance of team nutritionist Allison Maurer, with whom Van Winkle's recently spoke, has brought in a squad of sleep coaches to help educate players on sleep habits, environment and hygiene.
And since the SEC does nothing halfway, the beds in the dorms have been equipped with sensors that measure players’ heart rates, respiration, movement and how long it takes for them to fall asleep. The gathered information will be used by the coaches in making recommendations to players. If sleep proves useful in improving the Volunteers level of play this season, expect all others in the division to follow.
First-year head coach Tom Herman made a name for himself last season as one of the architects of Ohio State’s national championship. As offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Buckeyes, Herman staved off injuries to two QBs, eventually riding Cardale Jones to this past January’s national championship.
Now in his first year at the helm of a college football program, Herman is making his name as an interior decorator. Well, sort of. He brought special air mattresses into the Cougars’ practice facility, recognizing that naps are critical to top performance — especially in training camp when teams may practice twice a day. Moreover, Herman has scheduled naps into the team’s preseason routine.
In 2013, Northwestern’s football team participated in a study in which players wore armbands that measured their various aspects of their sleep. The Wildcats’ training staff aimed to gather quantitative and qualitative data, everything from REM cycles to resting heart rates, in order to make recommendations on sleep hygiene.
Since the study, Northwestern has recommended its players sleep in cold environments with ambient noises. The program also schedules game day naps, suggesting each player nap before getting on the bus to the stadium, and issues each member of the team a sleep mask.