“Over the last few months, players are just walking from one game to another, without stopping. There’s no respite from it…it puts a hell of a lot of pressure on them.”
It’s a stark warning from a man who knows more than most about the fatigue felt by footballers. Nick Littlehales, better known as the ‘Sport Sleep Coach’, has worked with clubs including Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal over the course of a career focused on helping players rest.
Littlehales believes that the demands of a condensed fixture list, brought about by the onset of COVID-19, are placing a heavy burden on footballers who were already facing daunting pre-pandemic schedules
“Ten years ago, they might go to a European game by flying out the day before they play the game, staying over and flying back the following day, so one game could take up maybe three days”, he says.
“Now, they fly out in the morning, play the game and fly back. There are players driving home from training grounds at four o’clock in the morning after playing in Moscow at ten o’clock that night, because they’ve just got to do it.
“It creates an enormous amount of pressure in very, very difficult circumstances and I think the worry, anxiety and stress is just growing.”
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Having worked with elite athletes from a range of different sports, including cycling and netball, Littlehales is also concerned about the psychological impact of an ever-changing fixture list.
He cites the postponement of major tournaments, such as Euro 2020 and the Olympics, and potential for further suspensions of domestic leagues as examples of constantly shifting goalposts, a concept alien to most athletes.
“They become a little lost. Of course, they want to keep training, but they almost don’t know what they’re training for…they’re almost in a sporting experiment,” he says.
Whilst sympathy for well-remunerated professionals might be in short supply in some quarters, Littlehales paints a very human picture of the players he deals with and the problems they face.
“Sometimes, you will get asked to go in and try to look after a player who’s almost gone to the edge. They’re hardly sleeping at all,” he says.
“If you’ve got a problem with it (sleep), it’s almost like you’re seen as a loser, so it’s never really come out as an issue or a problem.”
Littlehales has been banging the drum about the impact of sleep on sporting performance since a chance meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson, 22 years ago. Littlehales, then in charge of bedding retailer Slumberland’s sponsorship of Oldham Athletic, was introduced to Ferguson at a club function.
The former Manchester United manager’s interest in improving his players’ recovery from injury led to Littlehales working with Ferguson’s backroom staff. One of Littlehales’ first ideas was to introduce naps for players between pre-season training sessions, an intervention considered novel at the time.
“It was like, ‘what do we do with the players in between training sessions?’”, he says.
“So, we created a little area in one of the offices within the training ground, put some recovery products in the lounges and encouraged the players to actually go to sleep in between training sessions…they’ve never done this before.”
Littlehales’ impact on some of the squad’s England internationals led to an invitation to work with the national team. After joining-up with physio Gary Lewin, he was also sounded out by Arsene Wenger, who employed Lewin as part of Arsenal’s backroom staff.Embed from Getty Images
Drawing on his experience, Littlehales highlights the impact of tiredness on attention spans as the most significant way in which a lack of sleep hinders footballers.
“I think the main issue when somebody is in an unrecovered state for long periods of time…is that they don’t take on board information. The coach can stand there for an hour and they might only get 10% of what they’ve said,” he says.
“We can get through the day, we can perform and we can do stuff, but the reality is that you’re a shadow of where you should be and that’s dangerous.”
According to Littlehales, both players and coaching staff turn to a variety of remedies to mask the effects of fatigue, from the relatively commonplace (sleeping tablets and coffee) to the slightly less well-known (snus, a smokeless tobacco powder pouch used predominantly in Scandinavian countries).
Although lack of sleep is a widespread issue, the subject has typically received attention from a small set of elite clubs with the resources to focus on ‘marginal gains’, but Littlehales believes that is changing.
“There’s been a big shift recently. Clubs like Brentford, Swansea, Cardiff, West Brom and Norwich City, in the last two seasons, have just been trying to do everything they possibly can to take advantage of the Premier League and keep themselves up,” he says.
Regardless of the club he is working with, Littlehales summarises the mission of the Sport Sleep Coach company he has set up as “trying to remove the worry about sleeping”.
Using a bespoke ‘R90 technique’, which involves breaking a day into 16 cycles of 90 minutes (five of which are devoted to sleep), helps ease concerns about getting six to eight uninterrupted hours of sleep a night, which is impossible for many players, according to Littlehales.
He also encourages athletes to identify their sleep ‘chronotype’ (whether they are a ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ person) and build a routine of cycles around their preference.
Littlehales’ work can also extend to the finer points of a player’s recuperation. During Euro 2004, he worked with England’s backroom staff to replace the bedroom furniture in the team’s Lisbon hotel.
“We took our own pillows and our own toppers. The hotel in Lisbon just didn’t understand what was going on when we took the beds out!”, he says.
Professional teams’ pursuit of improved performance means that such examples are not exceptional – Littlehales points to similar ideas employed by British Cycling and Team Sky – but these interventions do not stop athletes resorting to other means to get some sleep. It’s an issue Littlehales is concerned about.
“You try to do something about it (sleep) and you go for isolated little things, whether it’s a supplement or something else, and you just dive into it,” he says.
“What we’re seeing at the moment is probably the tip of the iceberg”.
Littlehales points out that there are several clubs he is working with which are investigating the issue and potential solutions. Those efforts will take on even greater importance in the coming months, as the unrelenting nature of the 2020-21 calendar takes its toll on players who, increasingly, look like they simply need a rest.