Sleep sessions that helped get Emiliano back on track
Written by Simon Austin — June 10, 2021
WE might not have known it at the time, but last month's Championship play-off final was a fitting send-off for Brentford midfielder Emiliano Marcondes after three-and-a-half years with the club.
The Dane, who has today been released at the end of his contract, scored the Bees' second goal and was named man-of-the-match as they beat Swansea to earn a place in the Premier League for the first time.
TGG spoke to the 26-year-old shortly before the Wembley final and he explained that one of the main reasons he'd joined Brentford was because “they have so many specialists to optimise everything.”
One of them is the Danish sleep expert Anna West, who has had a major impact on the midfielder's time in West London. Via Zoom, they explained more about the work they'd done together:
Brentford have long been advocates of West's work, with Head of Performance Chris Haslam telling TGG: “Besides training, I truly believe quality sleep is the biggest fundamental tool a player can use to reach peak performance.”
Marcondes, who moved from FC Nordsjaelland in January 2018, knew how important quality sleep was as well, but the problem was he just couldn't get it. This, in turn, impacted his wellbeing, as well as his ability to recover from the load he was taking on in training.
“I was sleeping very well in Denmark and didn’t really think about it,” he told TGG. “When I came to Brentford I thought it would be the same, but it was a little different.
“It was a new culture, a new country, a lot of new things happening and my mind was wandering more, that was the key part.”
This is where West, who has worked with the Bees since 2016, came in. She started by trying to find out as much as she could about Marcondes, including his lifestyle and sleep environment.
“When I engage and work with a player, at Brentford or anywhere else, I start with an analysis, to get the baseline and starting point," she explained.
“This was related to his sleep and also his overall lifestyle pattern and the factors that will lead to whether he has good or bad sleep. It’s not like I have a fixed model of what I do when it comes to interventions, but I always use the same model when I do the baseline analysis.
"The interventions and tools used have to lead back to Emiliano, his lifestyle and the challenges he has.”
The player, who has been capped by Denmark at Under-17 to U21 level, was given a wrist strap containing sensors to collect his physiological data 24 hours a day.
This data, which was kept confidential between player and sleep coach, helped them to see “how many hours of sleep he’d had, a breakdown of his sleep levels, HRV (a measure of stress), his pulse, resting heart rate and then this data correlated back to his load from a training perspective."
Over time, West was then able to see "trend development, whether it will impact him if he has a match, and that way we could structure the interventions around him.”
To start with, the monitoring made Marcondes' sleep even worse. “The first couple of nights you overthink, ‘I need to sleep really well’, and that can have a negative impact.”
But this was quite normal, according to West.
“We need to embrace the fact we will see negative data in the beginning, because we are stressing a bit more and it’s a little bit like Big Brother watching you. In the beginning I prefer you wear it (the monitoring strap) for a month and then we evaluate whether it makes sense to continue.”
After a couple of nights, Marcondes got used to the wrist strap and monitoring and gained some valuable insights.
First of all, West could see that he "would have a very high load from training and his body wasn’t fully recovering.”
This was a challenge, because there’s a strong correlation between poor sleep and increased injury risk.
“Research has shown that athletes who sleep on average below eight hours would have a 1.7 times greater risk of developing a muscle injury,” said West. “There is quite a strong link between muscle injuries and poor sleep and at Brentford we could clearly see a connection as well.”
Marcondes did indeed suffer injuries in his first two seasons at Brentford, which hampered his progress there. Whilst there was no evidence that these injuries were down to poor sleep, they did create a vicious circle where he worried more, slept less and didn't recover as well as he might.
“I was very frustrated and irritated, thinking about my future and situation in the club,” the attacking midfielder admitted. “My mind was wandering and I was thinking about my training, how I’m going to be tired for tomorrow and how it will affect my injury, 'I can’t heal properly if I can’t sleep.'”
The duo then worked on techniques that could help the player to sleep better, using the data gathered by the strap to evaluate how effective these interventions were.
One strategy if the 26-year-old couldn't sleep was for him to get out of bed and do something else, rather than lying in bed worrying about it.
“If I couldn’t fall asleep after half an hour, I’d go into the living room and draw the tattoos I have now and then I’d feel more tired after that," he said.
He also sketched plans for a house, having recently bought a piece of land in Denmark; and wrote down details for a free-kick school he'd just launched.
“There’s this very strong link between your mental side and sleep," West said. “Emiliano figured out that drawing kept him going, that he liked to draw tattoos, and that it could support him to get the stress levels down and create some acceptance that helped him to fall to sleep better.
“That’s not for everyone, to draw tattoos, so that’s where the application and tools need to be adapted to who you’re working with. We did some measurements and could see some positive effects in the data when he did something purposely he was interested in.”
There were other effective strategies too.
Marcondes “totally blacked out” his bedroom, because light inhibits production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
“When I came here I had blinds that were not so good,” he said, “so we sorted that out. Sometimes I also sleep with a blind-out mask, like the kind you wear on an aeroplane.”
Electronic devices, which create blue light that fools the body into thinking it's daytime, were banished before bed time. Having consistency in sleep times also helped.
“I now keep my sleep and waking-up times the same, even on my days off,” Marcondes explained. “Sometimes it’s hard not to just sleep the whole day when I have a day off, but I know that will affect me the next day when I have to fall asleep. The knowledge has helped me a lot.”
They also did work on breathing.
“I am a huge fan of breathing techniques,” said West. “There are tons you can use. One of the most effective things I advise people to do is to employ slow breathing before you go to bed.
“You breathe in slowly, count to four, and then exhale for six seconds. if you can keep the pace down for about 15 minutes, you create this hunger for oxygen and that pushes the body’s ability to create natural melatonin, which gets us to sleep.”
Marcondes added: “If I'm thinking too much, I breathe super slow and it has such a good effect on me, I can really feel I am falling into a peaceful state of mind. It has the same effect when I am reading, I breathe very slowly, so I do that now before I go to sleep, instead of looking at my phone.”
Meditation also had a positive effect on his breathing.
“I have an app called Calm, where there are some breathing and meditation exercises which I sometimes use," he says. "When I meditated, I often fell asleep because I was breathing slow. it really got me down in tempo.
“In the beginning I was maybe, ‘meditation is not for me,’ it was just the word. It made me think of people sitting in a circle in a yoga position. But the more knowledge I got about it and tried the more I liked it.”
One thing Marcondes has had to accept, however, is that he won’t be able to sleep well after a night match.
West has previously compared footballers to shift workers, because of the different kick-off times and travel times they endure, and this presents a particular challenge.
“Ninety per cent of footballers I work with have trouble sleeping after a night game, because of high adrenaline, high light exposure,” West said.
Marcondes agreed: “That has always been a problem for me, to sleep after the game. It’s difficult when you have all the adrenaline and caffeine drinks and energy drinks.”
The key here is acceptance.
“This particular night is not going to be optimal for sleep,” West said. “But that one night of the game won’t be the deal breaker and it’s super important to create some acceptance around that.
“The deal breaker is all of the other nights, when you have a good option to use some of the tools you have developed to have good sleep.”
Marcondes again nodded in agreement.
“That is something I have more or less accepted, but there are things I try to do. If we play away on an evening, I try to watch the game afterwards on the bus, so I can see all of my actions and then close the game, so I don’t think too much about ‘I could have done this.’
"When you play with three days between games it’s very important to close the game as quickly as possible in your mind.”
Now the midfielder has what West describes as a ‘toolkit of techniques' and his sleep has improved significantly. Breathing slowly and sketching are things he now does naturally if he can't sleep, without thinking too much about them.
“When we go to brush our teeth before bed, we don’t think, ‘I’m removing bacteria from teeth four, five and six,’ we do it because it feels good," West said. “When we get to that level about applying sleep strategies we are successful. We just do it and it has a positive effect.”
The pair last met in person in February 2020 and continued their work on Zoom during the intervening, Covid-impacted, 16 months. Their work together has proved to West, once again, that "sleep is not a silo," but rather "a result of everything else we do during the day."
The sleep expert praised Marcondes for being open to "testing and trying."
"Emi was so good at applying things. Fortunately for me, he was a super positive player profile."
Those attributes should hold him in good stead on the next stop in his footballing journey.