Northwestern University football players are getting a unique lesson: how to prioritize sleep. Ever since 2013, the coaches in the football program have made sure that their student athletes are getting enough rest at night. And it all started with one man: Tory Lindley, the associate athletic director and head athletic trainer at the university. We interviewed him to find out more about this pioneering game plan.
“Around that time, I was becoming more and more aware of what scientific literature said about sleep helping the body recover,” says Lindley. “And at the same time, I noticed that our first game of that season was on the West Coast, which means kickoff would be at 9:30pm Chicago time.” Lindley felt that sleep research could help them prepare the team for such a late game, as well as help the whole team perform better as the season progressed.
So leading up to that game, head coach Pat Fitzgerald shifted practices, nap times, bedtimes, and meal times to mimic living on the West Coast. That way, when game day came around, there would be no jet lag to deal with and the players would all have more energy. And it worked—not just for that game, which they won, but for the months that followed. “Division I athletes have a tremendous load on their time given their class schedules, labs, study sessions, social obligations as a college student, and performance expectations as an athlete,” says Lindley. “We knew we had an opportunity to change habits and create a better sleep culture within the team.”
Since then, there’s been a definite shift in what the players brag about. “It used to be a badge of honor that you stayed up all night, and we had to reverse that,” says Lindley. “So we taught the team why sleep is so important, focusing on things like how sleeping boosts your performance, gives you better reaction time, lets you perform at a higher level. We also had to teach them what healthy sleep hygiene is—what kind of a room will help you sleep best, that kind of thing. And we gave players sleep trackers and created a level of competition among the players to see who was getting better sleep.” Now that’s a winning strategy.