The Man Who Helps Pro Athletes Fall Asleep

Credit: Photograph by Noah Willman

In the age of Moneyball, sports teams analyze all manner of statistics for an advantage. But even as they scour obscure metrics, more franchises are paying attention to something simpler and, potentially, a lot more important: sleep.

The man typically parsing that data is neurologist Christopher Winter. The medical director of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic, Winter has played sleep guru to nearly 30 pro teams — baseball, basketball, football, hockey — and consults regularly for MLB's San Francisco Giants and the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder. The jocks started lining up at Winter's door after he published a landmark 2009 study in which he crunched a decade's worth of data to determine that teams that cross three time zones to play a game have only a 40 percent chance of winning. As Winter puts it, the time-zone-adjusted team has a circadian advantage.

Winter, 43, now spends about a quarter of his time consulting with pros. As soon as a league's schedule is released, he'll identify the most problematic matchups (say, a string of East Coast games followed by a noon game back home in the West). Then Winter will hunker down with management to "game" the problematic matchups, manipulating the timing of flights, meals, workout schedules, and other variables. The goal: Regardless of when a game starts, players should always feel like it's 4 p.m., the hour when most people are at maximum alertness. That can mean arriving to away games a day or two early, to give players time to acclimate to an unfamiliar time zone. And Winter has plenty of other tricks up his sleeve. "Chris takes it to the point of duct-taping the bottom of players' hotel doors to keep out the hallway light," says Ben Potenziano, a trainer with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Winter calls these circadian chess maneuvers the "macro" part of his job. The micro is correcting the sleep habits of individual players. He'll often begin with a presentation, explaining how even a half-hour more of sleep a night can make a big difference on the field. "These guys' lives are based on performance," Winter says. "A few games without a hit, and you're out of the lineup; a few more, you're out of a job." That pressure can result in sleepless nights, which means Winter often plays psychologist as well as sleep coach, listening to and offering advice on players' problems, even if they're not game-related. "One guy had a fan sneak into his hotel room and hide in the closet," Winter says. "Now he's freaked out by spending the night in hotels."

Winter prescribes his patients a nightly "light audit": Dim at least three screens or lights to create "a dark, moody, Barry White environment" that encourages the release of sleep-inducing melatonin in the brain. The bedroom thermostat, he says, should be set to 65 degrees, ideal for deeper sleep. Finally, Winter tells clients to stop trying to fall asleep. Instead, "I tell pitchers to visualize throwing 50 perfect pitches in step-by-step detail," he says. Usually they'll just make it through two or three. "The brain can really do only one thing at a time, so you lose the worry of not falling asleep."

Collectively, Winter says, these small hacks yield an edge. "I tell my teams, 'Pay attention to sleep, and I can give you three games a season.'  "