The Boston Celtics, Sleep and Performance

Often, college coaches appear to equate toughness with the ability to get out of bed in the morning. After all, the rationale for the infamous 6:00 A.M. workout is the toughness or character or discipline that it builds.

In college, I rowed on the UCLA Crew team. We were on the water at 5:30A.M. four days a week, and the water was a 20-minute drive from my residence. Our early practice time had practical implications: we rowed in the marina in Marina Del Rey, and after 7 or 8A.M., the water was choppy, the traffic increased and rowing was more difficult than in the calm, flat pre-sunrise water.

These 5:30A.M. workouts did not make me tough or more disciplined. They made me tired. I had a general lethargy through most of the day. I slept through classes or took naps in the library between classes. I was fatigued before our afternoon workout started.

We raced in the morning, generally between 8-10A.M. We often left for races before 6 A.M.; giving the morning workouts additional practicality. Most college basketball teams play mid to late-afternoon games on weekends and evening games during the week. The 6 A.M. workout offers no practical application.

Early morning workouts disrupt sleep patterns and your body’s natural rhythms, especially on college campuses where athletes are at the mercy of roommates and dormmates who are on radically different time schedules.

The Boston Celtics value sleep. According to Kelly Dwyer, the Celtics have hired a sleep doctor, Dr. Charles A. Czeisler of Harvard Medical School. His hiring comes two years after Doc Rivers began to seek his advice. On the advice of Dr. Czeisler, the Celtics eliminated morning shoot-arounds and moved practice later in the day. As Rivers explained:

Guys are fresher, I think, if we walk it over right before (the game). They pick it up and they actually have a better chance of remembering it, rather than at 10 a.m. A lot of this comes from the sleep deprivation guy, this is the main reason we’re doing it. Clearly, our practices this year have been noticeably better because they are later, they got more sleep, more rest.”

Beyond the morning shoot-around, the Celtics also “instituted the ‘2 a.m. rule,’ which holds that if the players can’t get to their hotel rooms in the next city by that time, then they stay where they are for an extra night and get their eight hours.”

If 8 hours of sleep is important for performance, how many college athletes with 6 A.M. workouts are asleep by 9:30P.M.? If not, how does this affect their performance? Is building toughness worth the performance decrements? Is there a better way to instill toughness?

Having done the 5:30 A.M. workouts in college, and recently having been a personal trainer who had to awake early to train clients before they went to work, I do not believe in their efficacy. I do not believe that they build toughness or improve performance. Instead, they have an adverse effect on college students, especially in terms of academics where it is painfully difficult to stay awake in a boring lecture after a 5:30 A.M. class. I took a “jock” class one semester when I rowed, and the entire back of the classroom was filled with athletes sleeping. Our team took an entire row, alternated boy/girl/boy/girl, and slept on each other’s shoulders for the entire class in the hope of staying awake in our more difficult classes.

For us, at least, there was a reason. It was not punishment or to build toughness. It was practical. It reflected our race environment.  For athletes without this early-morning competition environment or facility necessity, the early morning workouts are a mistake.

More teams should follow the Celtics and listen to the doctors and researchers who study sleep’s effect on performance. Why create unnecessary obstacles in the talent development process?

Here’s an info-graphic from Fast Company on sleep’s effect on performance:


Below is a video tweeted by Mladen Jovanovic about sleep as a recovery tool:

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