Readers of The Bourne series may remember that in the 1990 thriller, The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne was known to repeat the phrase, “Rest is a weapon vital for survival.” Similar sentiments have been expressed by other fictional characters under extremely different circumstances, including the recent young adult blockbuster The Fault in Our Stars in which the main character was oft-heard saying, “Sleep kills cancer.”
Sometimes fiction is based on real life experiences and sometimes real life learns from storybooks. Hard to say which came first, but many of today’s sports teams are definitely taking the lesson of sleep as a weapon to heart. One of the places where the lesson is being used on a daily basis is in Seattle, where the Seahawks football team’s director of player health and performance, Sam Ramsden, has consulted with a small Vancouver company called Fatigue Science to improve player performance. The company had started out offering assistance to mining and transportation companies, but after the Vancouver Canucks successfully utilized them to help players overcome fatigue from a challenging travel schedule, Ramsden jumped on the bandwagon. The result was a revised way of approaching rest, particularly before any travel that took the team across time zones, and it apparently worked as the Seahawks took their first Super Bowl championship.
Though sleep has often been viewed as a lazy man’s hobby science has shown that it is essential to the way that we function. The idea that heroes don’t need sleep and that the truly productive view sleep as some kind of luxury has been believed by reports generated at Harvard and other elite research institutions, and Fatigue Science has the results to prove that high performance demands sleep.
Athletes make their living and their own success based upon the performance of their bodies, so providing them with the best rest possible is essential. Add to the punishment that they take on while they’re competing the challenges of a hectic schedule of nighttime games and cross-country travel, hotel room sleeping and general nerves before a big game and the importance of getting in all of the quality sleep that they can muster becomes all the more obvious. Fatigue Science has proven itself to be of tremendous value to the teams that it has served. The Vancouver Canucks started using them as long ago as 2009, and they’re still using them today. The team travels 70,000 kilometers per season from the West Coast, in much the same way that a National Basketball Association team like the Lakers or Kings do. That often means a cumulative two months per season in hotels, and over a career a player can end up accumulating millions of kilometers in travel.
Players who have been through it are quick to agree that traveling across country and time zones is taxing on the body, and that sleep is the number one cure. According to Brad Richardson who used to play for the L.A. Kings and who now plays for the Canucks, “Sleep is huge. Even coming from L.A. to here, the travel’s a lot harder – clearing customs every time, it adds on. We have meetings and you see the graphs and charts: You can’t be at your top performance if you haven’t slept. Your reaction time’s down, your thinking process is slowed.”
One of the tools that Fatigue Science employs is a product called a Readiband. These are devices that are worn on the wrist to assess the quality and quantity of sleep and provide an effectiveness score. Much like the fitness bands and sleep monitors that are now available to consumers, these items were actually utilized by Harvard Medical School in a 2012 study on orthopedic surgical residents. That study, which was published in the journal Surgery, showed that residents were operating on an average of 5.3 hours of sleep and were reportedly fatigued half of the time and impaired one quarter of the time. The impact was a jump of 22 percent in the risk of medical error. These results were eye-opening for those supervising the residents, and created change.
For those in the sports world, though there were initially doubts expressed about the importance of sleep, results have proven the science. The acknowledgement of the restorative nature of sleep has gotten additional support as those in the media world have jumped on board. Arianna Huffington, publisher of the Huffington Post, has recently devoted tremendous attention to the importance of rest, and others have jumped on the bandwagon. Even superstar Kobe Bryant is now praising sleep. “I have a hard time shutting off my brain,” he told The New York Times, “But I’ve evolved. I’m up to six or eight hours now.” He says that the thing that changed his view was “growing up, and understanding the importance of shutting down and unwinding.”
Fatigue Science is finding themselves increasingly in demand, and has signed on over 100 new customers in the last year. According to company founder Pat Byrne, “What we’ve done is taken a subjective art around fatigue management and huan performance and turned it into an objective science.” The company got its start following a family tragedy in which his 22-year old nephew fell asleep behind the wheel and was killed. From that beginning Byrne began researching and turned his passion into a career. He uses algorithms and software culled from the U.S. Army and Air Force and incorporates that information with the data collected by the Readibands to make recommendations. He is now working with over two dozen sports teams, as well as the U.S. military, mining and transportation companies and others. He says that one of the hardest parts of the job is to convert skeptical executives who don’t understand that a fatigued worker is as impaired as a worker who is drunk. “The challenge is making CFOs aware that this tool can help improve the bottom line,” says his CEO Sean Kerklaan.