Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers, Packers not sleeping on importance of sack time

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at OTAs on Thursday in Green Bay.

When you ask Aaron Rodgers what he does off the field to help his play at quarterback and, he hopes, extend his career into his 40s, he of course talks a lot about working out and eating a healthy diet.

But he also usually, and casually, mentions another factor: sleep.

Tom Brady, too. The New England Patriots quarterback has been quoted in reports saying that during the season he tries to get nine hours of sleep a night, and in the offseason 8½.

The NFL’s two best quarterbacks are onto something, though they might not know exactly why.

“I’m not an expert on (sleep),” Rodgers said after a Green Bay Packers OTA practice this past week. “I just know that’s when your body heals itself better. I (also) know there are a lot of cognitive issues with people who are insomniacs.”

In fact, as sleep science has advanced the last two decades, researchers have found that not getting enough sleep can compromise any and every measure of physical and mental health. That very much goes for athletes, who need sleep to, among other things, accelerate recovery and enhance their motor skills.

“If you don’t snooze, you lose,” is how Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist who specializes is studying sleep at Rodgers’ alma mater, the University of California, put it in a section devoted to athletes in his recently released book, “Why We Sleep.”

Professional sports teams, looking for every edge, have been emphasizing sleep for a while now, though probably not to the degree they should, at least in the NFL.

Coach Mike McCarthy, for instance, prioritizes rest and recovery in the Packers’ practice and meeting schedules. That includes devoting Fridays to a program in which players take part in a variety of recovery techniques such as massage therapy and hot-and-cold tubs.

McCarthy also sets his meeting and practice schedule so players can get plenty of sleep. For instance, the day after a night game, players usually aren’t due at the team’s facilities until around noon at the earliest. From all appearances, McCarthy and his support staff emphasize sleep for players mainly because of its recovery component. But recent research has shown that sleep helps athletes in more ways than that, which we’ll get into shortly.

But first, at the Packers’ two OTA practices that have been open to reporters the last two weeks, I asked a few players about the priority they put on sleep and what they know about it. All were aware of its importance, but their knowledge as to why it’s important was limited.

“That’s probably where I fall,” Rodgers said.

Defensive lineman Mike Daniels said the Packers have sleep, recovery and hydration reminders posted around the football facility. He also said that when he played at the University of Iowa, a sign posted on the exit from the locker room reminded players to “get your eight hours.”

“The saying is, if you want to get stronger, sleep,” Daniels said. “That’s when you build muscle. That’s when you recover.”

Just a few weeks ago, backup tight end Lance Kendricks watched a Joe Rogan video podcast in which Walker was promoting his book. Kendricks is a night owl, which means he gets about 7½ hours of sleep at most whenever the team is in session, but he found Walker’s interview compelling enough to start taking an hourlong nap most days.

“I know that you need somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep,” Kendricks said. “… (Walker) also talked about if you don’t get enough sleep you’re actually damaging your brain. I didn’t know that, either.”

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There’s not space here to go into the totality of Walker’s book, though I highly recommend it. It’s an eye opener. You think you operate well on six hours or less of sleep a night? Chances are, you’re delusional.

The accumulation of sleep research over the years strongly suggests that less than 1 percent of the population — yes, that’s less than 1 percent — actually functions well on six hours or less. The rest say they’re not impaired, but tests show they’re kidding themselves.

I wonder if NFL coaches and their assistants will ever accept this. For them sleep deprivation is a badge of honor, and convincing them it’s compromising their performance, well, good luck. But that’s a whole subject unto itself.

Meanwhile, Walker’s book devotes only about eight pages to athletes, but those eight pages say plenty.

Most surprisingly, recent studies, including those by Walker, show that deep sleep is crucial to learning physical skills, whether it be playing an instrument or a sport.

The studies are based in part on results of brain scans and devices that measure brain waves while subjects sleep. They show not just that sleep in general is crucial to learning skills, but more specifically, the final two hours of an eight-hour sleep cycle are the most conducive to transferring motor memories from the conscious brain to circuits that work subconsciously. In other words, that help make skills automatic, which is what sports are all about.

“Practice does not make perfect,” Walker writes. “It is practice, followed by a night’s sleep, that leads to perfection.”

Some players seem to have picked up on this intuitively. Cornerback Davon House said that when he’s struggling with something on the field, he meditates on it when he goes to bed.

“You’ll (then) think about it while you’re asleep for some reason,” he said, “and it should be stuck in your head by the time you wake up.”

Walker also writes of the role sleep plays in measurable performance, based on the more than 750 studies on sleep and athletes. In a nutshell, if athletes regularly get less than eight hours of sleep a night, and “especially less than six,” their time to physical exhaustion drops by 10 percent to 30 percent; their aerobic output diminishes, as do the markers in the bloodstream that reflect it; their vertical jumps and sustained muscle strengths decrease; and injuries increase.

It’s surely all related, but sleep also promotes faster recovery from working out and especially from games. It reduces inflammation, stimulates muscle repair and restores energy (glucose and glycogen levels).

Players seem to understand that instinctively, too. Clay Matthews says that one of the first things he looks for when the NFL schedule comes out is night road games. This year the Packers have three. Two are relatively short flights home immediately after the game — at Minnesota and New England. The other is at Seattle, which is about a four-hour flight and means the team won’t arrive back in Green Bay until probably 5 a.m.

“I look at (the schedule) and go, ‘That’s gonna suck,’” Matthews said.

NFL coaches are always walking the line between improving players’ lives so they perform their best but also trying to build the mental toughness that it takes to win games throughout a long, punishing season. I suspect as teams learn that the benefits of sleep run deeper than recovery, which itself is crucial, they’ll prioritize it even more and be less concerned they might be coddling players to the point of making them soft.

But it will require shifting mindsets, including with players. Though sleep scientists have found that the mind and body are extremely active during sleep, it’s just not the same as working out or even diet, where players can see and feel what they’re doing and eating.

“(Sleep) is the easiest thing to skimp on,” Matthews said. “… You don’t perceive it as a benefit, it’s more just what you do. … That probably gets lost in the shuffle of, ‘I’m tired,’ or ‘I need to stay awake a little longer and put in some extra (book) work.’”

In his book, Walker defines a full night’s sleep as somewhere between seven and nine hours, depending on the person. Of the players I asked, their aims for a minimum night’s sleep ranged from seven to eight hours.

Rodgers said he shoots for 7½, “at least.” During the season he’s usually in bed by 10:30 p.m., asleep by 11 p.m., and up at about 7 a.m. In the offseason that schedule is a half-hour later getting to bed, though he often gets up at closer to 6:30 a.m., so he often actually sleeps less out of season.

He also tries to stay off electronics at night because the screens’ blue-light backgrounds are harmful for sleep, and he sometimes uses apps that play background sounds that promote sleep.

“I don’t know the ins and outs,” Rodgers said of sleep’s benefits to his career, “but I’m interested in reading this book now.”

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