The annual NFL Scouting Combine doesn’t officially start until March 3, but the competition begins now. Over the course of the three-day event, 330 promising college athletes will be judged on their physical and mental capabilities, but in order to perform at peak level, they’ll have to make sure their bodies and brains are in impeccable shape beforehand. There’s one very simple way to do that, according to recent research: Snatch as much sleep as humanly possible.
There’s a reason the Boston Red Sox built a 145-square-foot, bunk bed-studded “sleep room” in Fenway Park this year and makes its starting pitchers travel ahead of the team: Sports science has shown that a short nap can mean the difference between a victory and defeat. In 2016, a team of Northwestern University scientists publishing in PNAS found that jet lag in Major League baseball players can cause “circadian misalignment” — that is, it throws a wrench in a player’s sleep cycle — and can impact “specific features” of human performance in natural settings.
They weren’t kidding about specificity: The researchers showed that jet lag due to Eastward-bound travel affects the home team’s slugging percentage and significantly reduces doubles, triples, and stolen bases. Ultimately, the negative effects on performance come down to lost sleep: Traveling East is thought to cause worse jet-lag effects because it forces people to go to bed earlier than they usually do (traveling West moves bedtime later) and attempt to get shut-eye when they are not yet sleepy.
It’s very likely that sleep deprivation affects the particular skills being tested in the Scouting Combine in the same way that it influences swinging, catching, and stealing bases in baseball. While there haven’t been any studies on NFL players in particular, the researchers behind a 2016 review in Strength and Conditioning Journal called for coaches of all sports to do a better job of educating their athletes about the need for sleep — at least 7-9 hours, they write — pointing out that elite athletes need more of it because their bodies spend more time recovering.
Sleep, after all, is a time for the body to repair itself. Without it, the researchers point out, performance, motivation, and arousal suffer — together with cognitive processes dealing with attention and concentration. Lack of sleep can even heighten an athlete’s perception of pain and exertion — that is, make them feel more sore or more fatigued than they actually are. “Clearly, sleep is important for the athlete by providing opportunity for the body to recover from training and preparing for the subsequent training or competition day,” they write. A similar sentiment was echoed by researchers in the British Journal of Sports Medicine who argued that sleep is “an essential component of recovery.”
Of course, scientists have also shown that it’s going to be especially hard for college athletes to try to sleep before the Combine, even if they know they need to: States of anxiety or excitement can raise the body’s levels of adrenaline and cortisol, which raise the heart rate and in turn make it especially difficult to sleep. Fortunately for NFL hopefuls, the sleepless Combine isn’t the be-all and end-all for their careers: As Arizona State’s Terrell Suggs showed when he emerged as a Baltimore Ravens star after being rejected by the Combine’s judges in 2015, it’s just as important for judges not to sleep on latent stars.