It seems rather timely that on the weekend when clocks change, we should be discussing a topic which keeps a lot of people up at night.
Or lack of it.
It’s no secret professional athletes have a tougher time than most people finding the hours to snooze, mainly because of brutal travel schedules, back-to-back games and trying to get comfortable in bed just hours after heart-racing competition.
National Hockey League players are no exception.
In fact, as far back as a decade ago, former Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault and general manager Mike Gillis recognized the toll sleep deprivation had on their team.
The Canucks, based in western Canada, travel thousands of extra miles to get to the East and Midwest where most NHL cities are located.
So Vigneault, now in his first year behind the Flyers’ bench, started to make revisions.
He opened practices later in the morning. He canceled most of the traditional morning skates. And he threw in the occasional unscheduled day off.
Not much has changed in 2019. In Philadelphia, Vigneault only conducts a morning skate after a day off. Practices now start at 11 a.m. or 12 noon, instead of the conventional 10:30 a.m.
All these policies are not just based on a hunch. They’re actually a product of analytics. Sleep studies have shown that a rested athlete (i.e., one that gets eight or nine hours of sleep per night) is a more productive one.
“I was fortunate, when I was in Vancouver with Mike Gillis, we had hired this sleep company,’’ Vigneault explained the other day at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J. “It taught our players, management and coaches what sleep deprivation does to you as far as physically, mentally – they helped us with our travel.
“So I’ve got a lot of important information that I use through the years. I knew our month of October (which included a nine-day swing through Switzerland and the Czech Republic, plus a three-game trip to western Canada) travel-wise was going to be very challenging. We tried to help as far as recovery.’’
The Flyers’ training staff monitors the players to make sure they’re not yawning through morning meetings or dragging halfway through practice.
“The players today, there are a lot of things they can do, Vigneault said. “We can’t enforce it but we can recommend that there are watches now that track hours so they can get their sleep, get where they are as far as their recovery. In today’s information world, we have this technology.
“I am totally aware of what you’re talking about. And I’m trying to do with the information and the knowledge that I have to do the best job I can to make sure we’re getting our rest, our sleep and recovery.’’
James van Riemsdyk is a player who’s very conscious of how much sleep he needs in order to perform at his best.
He makes a concerted effort to get at least eight hours per night and maybe more.
That’s not an easy thing to do, given the Flyers have 18 back-to-back games situations this year and do extensive travel in the winter months.
The New Jersey native is aware of a sleep study regarding NBA players and how sleep deprivation can have negative effects on efficiency.
“I’ve always been into performance-related things you can do to help your game,’’ the 30-year-old van Riemsdyk said. “The sleep part has always been a huge part of it.
“There’s an article that came out recently about the NBA and what they are trying to do as a league to shift some of that stuff, which is pretty interesting.’’
The Flyers are aware of what Vigneault is trying to do for them, both as a team and as individuals.
“It’s nice to see him taking some of the data, the science and putting that to use for us,’’ JVR said.
“You know, I’ve always been thinking in years past, ‘Why are we starting practice so early?’ Like this is our job. We’re here to be the best we can be on the ice. And if we can recover more – because of our schedule, and you get to bed late, if you want to take advantage of some extra sleep time, why not, if there’s no time crunch on the other end?’’
So far, there have been few signs of fatigue, both on the ice and off, even though the Flyers flew some 14,000 miles in a span of about three weeks.
“He (Vigneault) has been real progressive, proactive in that sense,’’ van Riemsdyk said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a coach who’s thought about it in that much depth.’’
A lot of it has to do with developing a routine for lights off. It’s not easy, because on an off night, a player might go to bed at 11 p.m. The next night, a game is played and he might not hit the sack until 1 or 2 a.m.
“If you’re going to bed at 9:30 on a night when you don’t have a game, you’re in the middle of the third period of a night when you do,’’ van Riemsdyk said. “You pay attention to that stuff and things like changing time zones.
“I think the leagues are taking steps, shifting some things to keep them healthier. Healthier players are happier but they (pro leagues) are also doing it for the product on the court, ice or field. You’re going to have a better product when you have rested athletes that are recovered.’’