How Brentford became specialists in sleep
Written by Simon Austin — October 23, 2020
INSTEAD of spending big money on transfer fees and wages (because they can’t), Brentford have decided to invest in specialists who can maximise player performance.
One of them is the Danish sleep expert Anna West, founder of Sleep2perform, who has been working with the Bees since 2016.
“Our philosophy is to focus on doing the basics incredibly well in order to maximise results,” explains Head of Performance Chris Haslam. “Besides training, I truly believe quality sleep is the biggest fundamental tool a player can use to reach peak performance on a daily basis.”
TGG spoke to West, who has also worked with other teams including Crystal Palace, to find out more about her methods.
IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP
Anna West: We sleep in 90-minute cycles. During the first part, deep sleep is dominating and this is what recovers you from a physical perspective. This means the percentage risk of injury increases significantly if a player is not sleeping well.
In the last part of sleep, the upper layers are dominating and this is very important from a cognitive, emotional and psychological perspective.
This is why learning ability is a big part of sleep. If a player has had a bad night’s sleep, he might have to learn something 10 times the next day instead of five times in order for it to stick.
We have developed the wrong perception of the warrior - ‘I don’t need as much sleep as he does’ - but once you get players to understand why they need to invest in sleep and recovery, just as much as they invest in training, then you see an improvement in performance.
FOOTBALLERS ARE LIKE SHIFT WORKERS
You need to be practical. Quite often, the lifestyle of a footballer goes against their natural biology. They are playing matches at different times of the day and evening, they might be returning in the early hours of the morning from a European game, so they can’t always go to sleep at the same time and eight hours will not always be possible for them.
In many ways, a footballer is like a shift worker. So I work on optimisation of sleep and adapting to the demands of the game.
If I work with a club, the first thing I do is carry out a screening of the players and their environment.
I've developed a questionnaire that reflects the fact that footballers have different challenges to the normal population, as we've discussed. I’ll ask them a range of questions - do they have children, do they return home or stay in a hotel after a late game, when do they eat, how much do they sweat, and so on.
I then do some mapping and see if there is a mismatch and work out how we can optimise sleep.
At Brentford, we divided the players into a traffic light of profiles after doing the screening. Reds had a racing mind, problems falling asleep, nights when they never even went to sleep.
This had a big impact on their performance and injury risk. Even if a player was a green, which meant they were sleeping well, there were still improvements that could be made. Making something better is appealing to any professional sportsman or woman, because it’s all about those margins at the top level.
SLEEP IS NOT A SILO
Sleep is not a silo - it's what happens to us as a result of everything else we do during the day. This is why you can achieve nice results when you map out the day.
Everyone is different and everything is connected. This is why, when I work one-on-one with players, the first thing we need to do is establish trust. If they don’t trust me, I can’t help them. With trust, we can talk about anything and start to create sustainable results.
Whatever changes I make, I try and ensure they're done gradually, not from zero to 100, because otherwise you can induce the stress hormone cortisol, which is a real enemy of sleep.
If you want to extinguish a fire, you don’t put petrol on it.
WHICH FACTORS FUEL THE FIRE?
What you eat is important in creating the right hormones for falling asleep. A night-time snack is good, but a heavy meal should be avoided, because you’re asking your metabolism to start working.
There is a cultural perspective here. Players from southern Europe are used to eating later and going to bed later. This is why we need to treat everyone as an individual and not have a one-size-fits-all approach.
A lot of people claim that alcohol is good for sleep, because it makes them drowsy, but it is absolutely negative when it comes to quality of sleep. It makes your blood pressure go up and your body is working to process the alcohol instead of on repair and recovery.
You may tell me that a few glasses of wine helped you to go to sleep, but if I measured your quality of sleep it would be lower than if you hadn't had them.
A lot of players leave the training ground and nap when they get home. If this isn't controlled, it can trigger the circadian rhythm into thinking they slept. A nap can quickly descend into deep sleep, which then makes it so much more difficult to sleep at night.
You should consider naps as an investment. If you learn how to do it in the right way, it will benefit you significantly over time. Nap for too long and it can damage your overall sleep quality though. So you need to train it so that your body knows what to do well. I often teach players to slowly decrease the number of minutes they nap.
Light has a negative effect on the production of the hormone melatonin, which is the sleep hormone. Some players still like to have the light or a lamp on when they sleep, which will have a detrimental effect on their sleep.
It inhibits the production of melatonin, as does looking at phones and tablets before bed time. These devices create blue light, which fools the body into thinking it's still daytime.
This is why you should avoid using electronic devices for a couple of hours before bed.
5. Climate and sleep hygiene
A few years ago, I did a project with a Danish club. We split the group into two and the first question was 'what do you sleep in?' Quite few said a cotton t-shirt, which they thought was good, but it binds the sweat. It's a little bit like peeing in your pants - there might be a nice feeling of warmth at first, but it soon becomes very uncomfortable.
We asked this group to start wearing a dry-fit material that could stabilise temperature throughout the night instead. After this, they had the best quality of sleep, better than those who slept naked or in pyjamas or t-shirts. They stopped tossing and turning and breaking the 90-minute sleep cycle.
You should spend time considering whether you are lying in a comfortable bed. People often ask how long they should use the same mattress, but this varies from person to person. It's like asking how long you should wear the same t-shirt.
I'm not trying to sell mattresses, so I don't have a stock answer.
Temperature is another important factor - the optimum is 19 degrees - so opening the window for 10 minutes before going to bed and airing the room can be beneficial.
You should ensure a good level of hygiene, by changing your sheets, because dust mites can irritate your airways, making you cough and toss and turn.
Even bearing all this in mind, I would say that 90% of trouble sleeping is emotional. During the day, we can sweep an awful lot of things under the carpet. When we sleep, they come back in our subconscious.
You can build the most fantastic recovery facility, but if a player's brain is still bashing away, they won’t be able to fall asleep. This is why I aways ask players if they sleep better at home or in an unfamiliar environment. The answer is often surprising, because a lot of players sleep better away from home.
This could be because they have young children who are waking up in the night, or because of emotional factors related to the home or bedroom. As I said at the start, developing trust and talking everything through is crucial for me in my job.