Pitt professor Chris Kline wants college students and athletes to wake up to the fact many of them are “notoriously sleep-deprived.”
Kline, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of Health and Physical Activity, served on an NCAA Task Force on sleep and wellness in 2017, co-authoring a paper that recommends practices for student-athletes to improve sleep habits. It appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in June.
He said the task force was created when it became evident proper sleep habits and optimizing sleep can benefit athletic and academic performance and overall health.
“Other research was showing,” he continued, “that athletes don’t get enough sleep, and the sleep they do get is not high quality.”
Kline, who recommends a consistent seven to nine hours for athletes and non-athletes, said you know you slept well when you wake up in the morning well-rested and don’t end up later in the day feeling “sleepy, fatigued, dragged-down.”
That’s no way for a football player to feel, especially when training camp starts for some early risers by 6 a.m. for the mandatory breakfast. Days often last more than 12 hours, with players sometimes watching video and meeting with coaches for a few hours after dinner.
Which is why center Jimmy Morrissey has trained himself to get a good night’s sleep. He’s perfected sleep so well he could conduct a sleep clinic to help teammates see the light (but only if it’s dim lighting in a quiet room).
Coach Pat Narduzzi mandates a 10:45 p.m. bed check/lights out the night before practice at the Spring Hill Suites on South Side’s South Water Street, where the team stays during camp.
“If you see a lot of lights up on the sixth floor,” he said, “hopefully, it’s a coach.”
But 10:45 is too late for Morrissey.
“I get to bed around 9:50, 10 o’clock,” he said. “I like to be in bed and asleep before bed check comes. I wake up at 5:50, just about eight hours. I’m pretty strict about that.”
Morrissey, who also takes a 20- or 30-minute nap during the day, is a former walk-on who is approaching his third season as a starter. Self-discipline comes easy for players in his position.
He treats getting up early like a competition against the alarm clock.
“I sleep with my phone away from my bed,” he said. “That forces me to get up. Once I hear the alarm, I’m up. I try to stop my alarm within the first ring. That’s like my goal to get myself going.”
He said falling asleep before the 11 p.m. news is no problem, especially after a long day of meetings and practices.
Morrissey said there are players who don’t sleep as much as he does at night, but they take longer naps during the day.
Which is not the best idea, Kline said.
“Your naps during the daytime should be refresher naps, short half hour or less,” he said. “The longer your daytime nap is the more likely it’s going to mess up the night’s sleep.”
Nonetheless, Kline said defending national champion Clemson offers isolated sleep pods for its football players. LSU has the equivalent of mini-sofas in front of each locker.
“It’s a different beast down there,” he said.
Kline said he is in talks with Pitt executive associate athletic director Chris Hoppe about across-the-board sleep monitoring of athletes.
“Some sort of sleep training has definitely been on Pitt’s radar, but it hasn’t implemented anything on a large scale,” he said. “It’s mostly been from team to team, mostly in terms of tracking sleep.”
Kline said good sleep habits are tied to duration and quality.
“It simply means not treating sleep as an afterthought,” he said.
Fitting in sleep after long hours of studying (a playbook or English book) or binge-watching TV isn’t recommended.
“You usually can’t just flip a switch in terms of being active on your phone and say ‘OK, time to sleep,’ ” Kline said. “Sleep has to be a dedicated wind-down routine to really facilitate good sleep.
“It’s thought that athletes need more sleep.”
Over the years, Pitt junior basketball player Terrell Brown has learned good sleep habits. But it took time.
“The night before the game, I need eight hours,” he said.
“My freshman year, I didn’t (sleep well before a game). I’d be wrestling in my sleep. Now, I can go to sleep.”
One day this summer, he said he had a full day of weight lifting and practice on 6½ hours sleep.
“I probably won’t take a nap, either,” he said, proudly.
Kline is aware that an athlete’s lifestyle often can mess with the ability to obtain quality sleep.
A few years ago, former Pitt football player Brian O’Neill was trying to gain weight for a move to the offensive line. He set his alarm for the middle of the night, got up and ate two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
That’s OK, Kline said, with one condition.
“I would encourage him to, literally, have those PB and Js made the night before to sit down and eat them in low light just so he could go right back to sleep,” he said. “No harm, no foul.”
Pitt basketball coach Jeff Capel said he never has been a good sleeper. During the season, he said if he gets six hours “that’s great.”
“We don’t have a certain amount of hours (players are required to sleep),” he said. “Some guys operate differently. I don’t sleep much. I never have. After the game was normally the hardest time to go to sleep because I was so excited about the game.”
Kline gets it.
“Competing obligations are always there,” he said. “If you could bottle up the performance-enhancing benefits of sleep and sell it, that would be the biggest and most potent supplement by far that you could ever provide.
“The sad fact is most athletes aren’t taking advantage of that free and natural supplement.”