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Athletes Get A New Type Of Coach, For Better Sleep


Feeling sleep deprived? Yeah, me too. So are a lot of other people, though. It's a particular problem for people who work at night. Increasingly, employers with overnight staff are hiring sleep coaches to help boost performance. Araceli Gomez-Aldana of Side Effects Public Media reports.

ARACELI GOMEZ-ALDANA, BYLINE: Getting enough sleep is particularly difficult for some professional athletes, especially basketball players. That's in part because of all the travel they do and because they play at night. They're essentially working the swing shift. Robin Lopez plays center for the Chicago Bulls. He's in his 10th season. And like most NBA players, every year, he plays 82 games in six months. That's just the regular season. Add team practices, workouts, traveling across time zones, and you're left with little time for sleep and recovery. So how does he cope?

ROBIN LOPEZ: I'm a big proponent of naps. Ever since I came into the league, the schedule with shootarounds in the morning and games at night - it really just fosters a culture of naps.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: To combat sleep deprivation, NBA teams are hiring sleep coaches or consultants. The strategy is simple. Quality sleep could equal better performances. And to get the best out of its players, the Chicago Bulls turn to Chip Schaefer, the team's director of performance health. Schaefer compares the NBA schedule to swing-shift work or overnight work. He says everyone should be paying closer attention to their sleep.

CHIP SCHAEFER: Then, I think, if people realized how important sleep was - you know, the benefits are really akin to performance-enhancing drugs. And if people realized that, I think that they would pay more attention to it.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: Dr. Phyllis Zee is a sleep researcher at Northwestern University. She agrees those most affected by sleep deprivation are those nighttime workers.

PHYLLIS ZEE: Those two types of shifts are associated with the highest risk for long-term metabolic cardiovascular disease and even for substance use.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: Shift work is also common for police officers. In Indianapolis, the police department has an entire unit devoted to wellness. Sergeant Aaron Snyder heads it and says he always asks his officers how they're sleeping.

AARON SNYDER: Forty percent of officers have at least one sleep disorder. About a third of officers are suffering from sleep apnea.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: Snyder says he got sick after switching back and forth from the night shift.

SNYDER: And my doctor at one point said to me, Aaron, you're a healthy person; your background's in exercise physiology; you know how to eat right; you know how to exercise; this job's killing you; slowly, it's killing you.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: There's new sleep technology to the rescue - wearable items like watches, rings and apps on your phone to track sleep activity. The Chicago Bulls' Chip Schaefer says many NBA teams are using technology to help players focus on their sleep. And for his players, he recommends a sleep monitor device that's placed under a mattress to track sleep patterns. Player compliance is a struggle, and it's technology that also keeps players up at night.

SCHAEFER: And I've been shocked. I've been told - I've had players tell me that they're up playing video games till 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. It's just nuts, and all you can do is strongly discourage that and try and educate them.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: Sergeant Snyder says education is important for him, too, as he travels to police departments across the country to talk about sleep as a component of wellness. He says the stress and trauma that comes with being a police officer is certainly a problem. But not giving your body enough time to recover can potentially be deadly. For NPR News, I'm Araceli Gomez-Aldana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Araceli Gomez-Aldana