Sleep - The Foundation of Human Performance

Sleep - The Foundation of Human Performance

Does sleep really make a difference to performance, or is it a distraction from achieving your goals? Is sleep a problem for you? Do you wake up tired? Is it difficult for you to fall asleep? In this article, human performance strategist Dr Craig Duncan shares his experience and research when it comes to sleep and its impact on human performance, on the sports field, at work and beyond.


Aug 07, 2022

5 mins read

In a recent survey, over 60% of Americans said they rarely feel rested and energised in the morning. And a third of working adults report that they sleep fewer than seven hours each night. Considering sleep deprivation is associated with a range of serious health issues, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and obesity, it’s clear that improving our sleep needs to be prioritised for our health and well-being. But how important is sleep for other aspects of our lives? In my work with elite athletes, professionals and corporations worldwide, I have observed that sleep is a factor that is commonly overlooked. While we know sleep deprivation can lead to health issues, how important is it to get enough sleep for those playing a high-performance game? And how much sleep do we need if we aspire to be a high performer? This article explores these questions and shares the results of research and my professional experience on this issue. But first, let’s consider what sleep does for us and why we all need to ensure we get enough of it.

Shifting focus to sleep health

When we sleep, it is the primary part of our day when we recover both physiologically and psychologically. Although sleep needs vary, adults typically require between seven and nine hours each night, and our sleep patterns depend on our circadian rhythm or body clock. Historically, sleep research has focused on preventing and treating sleep disorders. However, these days the focus has shifted to sleep health, which is significantly different from the archaic view that we need sleep purely to prevent us from becoming unwell. Why? Because holistically, health is more than just not being sick.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Sleep health is also more than just decreasing problematic sleep disorders and focuses on the positive impact ‘good sleep’ has on individuals and societies. So, how do we define sleep health, and how does achieving it positively impact us? Daniel J Buysse, a leading expert in sleep health, has proposed the following definition: 

‘Sleep health is a multidimensional pattern of sleep-wakefulness, adapted to the individual, social, and environmental demands, promoting physical and mental well-being. Good sleep health is characterised by subjective satisfaction, appropriate timing, adequate duration, high efficiency, and sustained alertness during waking hours.’

Based on Buysse’s definition, sleep health requires individuals to observe sleep duration, sleep efficiency, sleep habits when we sleep, alertness when we are awake and sleep quality. If we have good sleep health, research demonstrates a substantial positive impact on accident and mortality rates, metabolic syndrome, coronary heart disease, hypertension, depression, type 2 diabetes, obesity and neurobehavioural performance. It is evident that good sleep health is vital for overall health and productivity.

Good sleep health involves sleeping seven to nine hours each night, sleeping continuously through the night with minimal disruptions and having regular sleep and wake times in order to wake up feeling refreshed and not being sleepy throughout the day. A recent article written by Colin A. Espie and published in the Journal of Sleep Research identifies and explains what he calls the ‘5 Principles’ of good sleep health: Value, Prioritise, Personalise, Trust and Protect. Let's consider the first, and in my view, most critical principle in terms of achieving sleep health, particularly for those playing a high-performance game.

Why should high performers and achievers value sleep

The first, and in my view most critical, step to achieving sleep health is to value sleep. Historically, many high achieving individuals would proudly boast about needing minimal sleep. Quotes like, ‘I’ll sleep when I die’, from well-known life and business strategist Tony Robbins, who reportedly only sleeps three to five hours a night, were commonplace.  Furthermore, in an article published by Forbes on the sleep habits of highly successful people, 73% of participants reported that they sleep less than seven hours a day. Although it may seem evident that valuing sleep is essential, it is only recently that there has been more interest in the true value of sleep. 

In my work with professional athletes, I have found sleep – including valuing sleep – to be fundamental to high performance. Sometimes, with extensive travel across multiple time zones, the planning of the sleep strategy is a major part of my work. This was certainly the case when I worked with Australia's national football team, the Socceroos, in 2017. The team had a final qualifying match for the 2018 World Cup that required them to play Honduras in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, before flying back to Sydney, Australia, for a second match against the same opponent five days later. Planning and executing an effective sleep strategy was imperative for the players' recovery and fatigue minimisation leading into the second match. As a result, they were victorious against Honduras in Sydney, with their opponents suffering the impact of fatigue in the second half. Undoubtedly, the Socceroos players' dedication to recovery and following an effective sleep strategy enhanced their performance on the field. 

Unfortunately, we still have a situation where many people who should know better do not value sleep. Research has shown that medical doctors and nurses have compromised sleep habits, with average sleep hours reported at less than seven hours. They also report poor sleep quality and regular daytime sleepiness. Doctors often work up to 90 hours per week, and there is evidence that sleep deprivation is potentially detrimental to the health of doctors and their patients. Medical mistakes kill up to 100,000 residents in the US each year, and evidence suggests these mistakes may have a relationship with sleep deprivation. Furthermore, medical residents who are sleep compromised are 2.3 times more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle absence post-work than people with healthy sleep patterns.

Rather than being a distraction to achieving your goals, sleep is the foundation of performance. Therefore, valuing and prioritising sleep is critical to performing at a high level as it enables us to maximise our potential. For all the reasons outlined in this article, I train all coaches employed in my company, Performance Intelligence Agency (PIA), in a system incorporating a focus on sleep as the bedrock of high performance. The system includes a comprehensive education and monitoring component to encourage our clients to value sleep and ensure they maximise sleep quantity and quality. Whether you’re an athlete, need to perform well in your workplace or business, or simply want to stay on top of all your responsibilities in life, sleep plays a significant role. 

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