the sleeper op is... sleep?
In athletics, muscle regeneration from intense physical activity is largely regulated through sleep (1) – the more you sleep, the more recovery and growth you’ll achieve (within limits). What does that mean for other domains of performance that aren’t as physical, such as esports? Sleep has long been implicated with cognitive decline. Whether it be driving, exams, or athletic performance, a sharp reduction of performance is seen as you are less rested and more fatigued (2). I'm sure all of us have also experienced the negative effects of sleep when we got way more angry at tiny things than we should or we can't hold focus on whatever we're working on. The question in esports is: is it more important to prioritize time into training or less training for sleep?
Compared to traditional sports, esport performance is more isolated to cognitive ability and less physical output (3). As a result, rapid and accurate in-take of information and near instantaneous decision making is crucial to producing an optimal performance (4). Even the slightest momentary lapse in judgement during a team fight or callout can result in an immediate loss. You can see this happen in games like League of Legends where one person makes a minor misposition for a split second and the enemy team identifies the opportunity and engages. This whole situation of someone mispositioning, identifying the opportunity, making a decision, making the callout to engage, and successfully executing the engagement all occurs within a few seconds. Additionally, managing other extraneous information such as location of your teammates, location of enemies, ability cooldown awareness, communication from your team, and other macro/micro game knowledge requires the ability to hold and access information from several sources all at once (4).
So, how does sleep tie into all this? If insufficient sleep results in cognitive performance declines such as slower reactions times (5) and less accurate decision making (6), the negative effects a player may experience when running low on sleep start to pile up. The amount of information your brain has to hold, recall, utilize, and then produce accurate, effective output is astounding. It takes a tremendous amount of focus and attention to compete at the elite level, while the entire process of making and executing decisions has to happen in split seconds. You can begin to see that even a tiny bit slower of a brain on any given day can have a hugely negative effect on your ability to perform. You may feel like you're performing at your best, but you may not be able to detect the fact that you're performing at a very slightly slower pace. If you're in an evenly matched, highly skilled competition, even a 1-2% drop in performance can cause a loss.
With gaming and esports events happening primarily late in the day, sleep schedules are frequently disrupted with late nights and early mornings (due to work or school) being fairly common. Learning how to structure your sleep schedule is key to circumventing the negatives of sleep deprivation. Ultimately, if sleep is something you’re struggling with, it should be put as a high priority to fix and chatting with an expert in the area may be useful! For now, here’s some tips on how to better manage your sleep:
1) Get consistent. Going to bed early everyday isn’t necessarily the best choice. You may miss events or team practices that way. Instead, place a priority on having a set time you go to bed every night - even if that’s 2:00am
2) Duration matters. Getting your 8-hours is critical. You may feel like you’re performing at your best despite having only slept 3 or 4 hours, but you’re not. You’re slower, making worse decisions, and having more mechanical errors in-game. Your perception of your ability to perform may not always be accurate.
3) Set a schedule. The best way to fall asleep at night is by training your body to know when it’s time to get tired. Keep your bedtime and your rise time as a rule that’s not flexible. It’s very difficult to get your sleep schedule in check, but extremely easy to let it get messed up.
4) Caffeine cut off: Caffeine will impact your ability to sleep, even if you think you’re the exception. Have a cut off point late in the afternoon and don’t bend on that.
5) Get up fast: When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you should do is get out of bed. Don’t lay around looking at your phone or laptop or laying in a half asleep state. Get up immediately. If you have a slow start every morning, your brain gets conditioned to wake up slowly. This has the potential to impact the time you get to sleep at night.
6) Exercise early. Spike your energy early in the day by setting your workout schedule to not be at night. Late night exercise can increase your adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that energize you rather than making you drowsy. Bonus perk: If you’re exercising, sleep will also help with your muscle growth!
To sum it all up: Sleep is CRUCIAL to developing skill and performing at your peak. If your goal is to reach the top, be deliberate about designing your days in a way that optimize your ability to have sufficient quality sleep.
Here’s some references if you’re wanting to dive in a bit more:
1) Dattilo, M., Antunes, H. K. M., Medeiros, A., Neto, M. M., Souza, H. S. D., Tufik, S., & De Mello, M. T. (2011). Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis. Medical hypotheses, 77(2), 220-222.
2) Coutts, J., & Meyer, T. (2015). Hugh HK Fullagar, Sabrina Skorski, Rob Duffield, Daniel Hammes, Aaron. Sports Med, 45, 161-186.
3) Bonnar, D., Castine, B., Kakoschke, N., & Sharp, G. (2019). Sleep and performance in Eathletes: for the win!. Sleep health, 5(6), 647-650.
4) Himmelstein D, Liu Y, Shapiro JL. An exploration of mental skills among competitive League of Legend players. Int J Gaming Comput Mediat Simul 2017; 9: 1-21.
5) Swinbourne, R., Miller, J., Smart, D., Dulson, D. K., & Gill, N. (2018). The effects of sleep extension on sleep, performance, immunity and physical stress in rugby players. Sports, 6(2), 42.
6) Halson, S. L., & Juliff, L. E. (2017). Sleep, sport, and the brain. In Progress in brain research (Vol. 234, pp. 13-31). Elsevier.