The NBA season is a too-long, marathon of a grind. It’s 82 regular games spread across six months — and that’s before things get intense in the playoffs. Players wear down physically, making injuries (and shorter careers) more likely. It’s also why we all know the phrase “load management.” Sixers coach Brett Brown was the first person I have heard put it this way, but it’s nearly a mantra around the NBA now:
“This is a recovery league.”
At the heart of that recovery is sleep — and players simply do not get enough of it. Playing games that go into the night, followed by travel and strange hotel rooms, then a shootaround the next day, is not conducive to getting eight or more hours of sleep. Or seven. Or often six. That lack of sleep — particularly good, deep REM sleep — has a physical toll on players, and the league is just starting to understand the science of it all.
In a must-read article by Baxter Holmes at ESPN, he gets into the “dirty little secret” of NBA players’ lack of sleep, and the impact that has.
Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum began taking naps in high school and seeking nine hours of sleep a night. And in the NBA, he gets into bed as early as possible. “Lack of sleep messes up your recovery, messes up how you play, your cognitive function, your mindset, how you’re moving on the court,” McCollum says. “Sleep is everything.”…
So how much sleep do NBA players get per night during the season? Ballparking a figure is tricky, but Czeisler, who has worked with three NBA teams, says five hours per night is not an uncommon answer from players… That said, one former and four current NBA athletic training staff members all separately say that six hours of sleep per 24-hour cycle is common among players, an estimate that combines the nightly sleep and the pregame nap that is typical for many NBA players…
By January, just three months into the 2012-13 NBA season, the testosterone [which decreases with lack of sleep] of one player in his 20s had dropped to that of a 50-year-old man. (Those reductions in testosterone, it’s worth noting, are not permanent, but they do require multiple days of recovery to offset.) And as testosterone levels fell for more players, the injuries seemed to correspondingly accumulate.
It’s worth reading the entire article to see the science and impact. For example, multiple trainers suggest most players get five to six hours of sleep a day, and that includes afternoon naps (and science shows those naps are not as beneficial as sleep at night.
Fixing this sleep deficit issue is not simple, it taps into the scheduling issues — and the number of games — that is a topic around the league without a clean and easy solution. There’s a growing consensus there should be fewer games total and they should be spread out more to get players more recovery time, but doing so likely impacts revenue — through gate receipts, television deals, and more — and nobody wants to give up some cash.
Players recognizing the issue is a start, they can take charge of their own health. Just keep your eye on the sleep issue over the coming years, because the lack of sleep issue is going to move more front and center with teams and players.