It’s World Series time, and for the third time in the past five years, the San Francisco Giants have been in the playoffs. As this year’s National League contender, the team has once again pulled out all the stops to ensure that they are doing everything in their power to win, and once again that includes bringing in sleep expert Dr. Chris Winter. Winter is the medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Giants’ athletic director Dave Groeschner is a huge fan. The Giants have consulted with Dr. Winter each time that they have been in post-season play, and were the very first professional team to ever call on him. Many others have followed their lead.
Winter’s particular role in the team’s post-season strategy has been to help them to plan their travel schedule and players’ sleep schedule in a way that maximizes their chances of being alert and well-rested. "What we're trying to do is create a situation where their brain is being tricked into thinking that whatever time the game is happening, it's 4 o'clock in the afternoon. That's when those athletes are at their best. We're trying to help them develop smarter ways to get better sleep,"" he said.
To get an idea of the kind of change that Winter has introduced to help the team, consider this. After Game Two of the series was played in Kansas City, the team went back to their hotel and got in a full night of sleep before boarding a plane back to the West Coast the next afternoon. Traditionally, teams head straight from the stadium to the airport and take a red-eye back to their home. Staying overnight meant increased hotel expenses, but that additional cost paid for a thoroughly rested group of athletes. "Again, looking for an edge," Groeschner said. "Just gives us some thoughts on how to travel better, especially to the East Coast. He just helped us with some ideas."
When asked about the change in travel programming, many of the Giants’ players were enthusiastic. "I've liked it this postseason how we've left the next day," said shortstop Brandon Crawford, whose baby girl had a rough night Thursday ahead of Game 3. "It's been nice to get a semi-normal night's sleep and come back the next day. When we come from the airport and have a workout that same day, it's almost easier than coming in real late, then going home and sleeping in most of the day and then having to come to practice. Actually, I like it more," he said.
Though his current focus is on the post-season play, Dr. Winter has been there for the team since spring training, when he met the players as well as their trainers. That was when they first started talking about the importance of rest and sleep, and the message has contributed to the team’s success. Winters believes that sleep evaluations should be part of every team’s player evaluation process, but at this point in the season his mission is to help them all with recovery, as well as to give them strategies to deal with the constant shift of time zone. The challenge has been to fool the players’ body clocks. According to second basemen Joe Panik, it seems to be working. "I was on a consistent sleeping pattern, so I wasn't up late and I wasn't waking up too late or too early, so my sleeping patterns were normal," Panik said. "It definitely helps. I feel great. Hopefully, it translates onto the field."
Winter has done extensive research into the impact of sleep on player fatigue, including studies that linked the amount of rest that players get to both performance and career longevity. Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy says that he is grateful for the expertise. We had made that decision that we feel it's better for them, just, hey, try to get a normal sleep, keep them in their normal routine," he said, and trainer Dave Groeschner summed it up pretty simply. "Try and get a good night sleep," he said. "It's tough when you get in at 5, 6 in the morning. One, the sun's coming up and your circadian rhythm gets caught up in the sunlight. And also, especially coming back, guys have families and kids and if you get home in the morning and the kids are up, you're going to want to get up."
The Giants are not the first professional sports team to leverage a sleep expert’s knowledge to give them an edge. Dr. Charles Czeisler is a tenured professor at Harvard Medical School, and he is the expert that many teams from all areas of professional sport consult when their teams’ performance needs a boost. He recalls getting a phone call from the team physician for the Boston Bruins the night before the critical seventh game of the Stanley Cup series, when the team would need to overcome its opponent’s home-ice advantage. With that little time left before the game, there was not much he could do.
Czeisler’s overriding message to all of the teams with whom he works is the same that Dave Groeschner is giving his players – get more sleep. He urges naps before games, as well as a regular eight or nine hours of sleep per night. He is also emphatic that the sleep that comes after a big game is the sleep that is the most important that an athlete can get. “Interestingly, if you don’t sleep the night after training, then even if you sleep the next night or the next night, you never learn,” he says. Learn? In sleep? That’s right, and it is generally accepted among sleep professionals. According to sleep experts Richard Stickgold and Erin Wamsley, “During all stages of sleep, the mind and brain are working to process ne memories, consolidating them into long-term storage and integrating recently acquired information with past experience.” So athletes who get a good night’s sleep after a game learn from both the mistakes they’ve made, and the points they score.