NBA players always stress the fundamentals, like ball handling, dribbling, defense, shooting and increasingly, sleep.
“Sleep is the most important thing when it comes to recovery,” LeBron James recently told CBS Sports. “And it's very tough with our schedule. Our schedule keeps us up late at night, and most of the time it wakes us up early in the morning. ... There's no better recovery than sleep."
And he's not alone. The Golden State Warriors work with sleep expert Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory. The Portland Trail Blazers have worked with Charles Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, since 2009. And CBS’s recent deep dive on how improving athletes' sleep offers big payoffs on the court (as well as the NBA’s multibillion-dollar business) is more evidence that athletes are understanding the fact that good sleep is essential -- and is deemed by some experts as the "third pillar of health."
Here are three sleep lessons learned from these NBA ballers (plus the research to back them up):
1. ‘You have to fine tune your body’
Thunder forward Kevin Durant told CBS: “You have to fine tune your body. There’s a lot of remedies you can use as a basketball player to get better, but the easiest thing you can do is go to sleep.”
Exactly right. A recent study found that one in four athletes have significant sleep problems and most athletes sleep less than current guidelines recommend, but that a little bit of sleep counseling actually went a long way in improving those athletes’ sleep routines. On a 10-point scale that measured sleep quality, scores improved 60 percent on average.
Though it’s unfair to generalize for all athletes or across sports (this study only included 107 athletes who were all hockey players), it’s very likely that a big portion of athlete’s sleep problems stem from unhealthy sleep habits, shifting game and training schedules and cross-time zone travel, Rob Duffield, associate professor in sport and exercise science, told HuffPost.
“Early morning training and late night matches are the big issues that cause disruption of sleep,” said Duffield, who has not involved in the study.
2. 'Sleep good, feel good, play good'
Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala -- who has perhaps been most vocal about his sleep habits -- said he called out his own poor sleep habits in 2013 (like his regular 2 a.m. sitcom binges) and enlisted help from a sleep therapist, ESPN previously reported.
“I started changing habits,” Iguodala explained to Jawbone last year. “I’d wake up on game day in the morning to practice, and I started noticing better shootarounds. My teammates are like, ‘Man, you’re making some shots today,” and I’m thinking to myself, ‘They have no idea I’ve been going to sleep!’”
His motto, he said: “Sleep good, feel good, play good.”
Iguodala claims using a Jawbone UP activity tracker and the app helped wake him up to the way sleep benefitted his game. Data from his tracker revealed when the star clocked more than eight hours of shuteye, he increased his free throw shooting by nine percent and his three-point shooting by two percent, and he reduced his turnovers dropped 37 percent and personal fouls dropped 45 percent. And according to science, those numbers add up.
Studies show that as little as one night of partial sleep deprivation can affect peak heart rate levels, plasma lactate concentrations and ratings of perceived exertion -- i.e. our bodies' internal functions that bear on our athletic performance.
Sleep loss is also known to affect fine motor skills, like visual tracking, decision making, vigilance and others, all of which come in handy lining up that game-winning, three-point buzzer shot.
Plus sleep plays a huge role in post-training (or post-competition) recovery, physiologically-speaking. Sleep is a key time for cell repair, cell growth and carbohydrate replenishment (i.e. re-upping energy levels after a touch game or workout), Duffield said.
3. 'It does stuff to your mind'
The other sleep benefit that all too often goes overlooked -- stress reduction.
As HuffPost blogger Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist, puts it: "Sleep and stress have a tangled relationship."
Stress, of course, causes you to lose sleep, and that lack of sleep makes you even more stressful. Thus, the vicious circle begins.
Studies show "worry" ranks as one of the most common causes of sleeplessness among adults.
And while clinical trials on how sleep affects stress levels in athletes are somewhat elusive, LeBron James' comments make it clear that he gets it.
"I just felt like sleep wasn't important and the only thing that mattered to me was how I was going to try to get back up there and win," James told CBS Sports. "It was very difficult to get sleep, because my mind was racing so much that it didn't allow me to go at ease.
"It does stuff to your mind, man."
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.