Sports & Sleep: An Interview with Pat Byrne
Professional athletes put their bodies through a lot. High-intensity competition, grueling travel schedules, late games — all of this makes good sleep hygiene crucial. A well-rested and recovered athlete plays better than a sleep-deprived one, and professional teams are starting to understand how the sleep health of their athletes impacts wins and losses.
In the third installment of our Sports & Sleep series, we spoke with sleep and fatigue expert Pat Byrne about his work with the Vancouver Canucks and his company, Fatigue Science.
Tell me about yourself, what you do and how you got connected to this field.
My background is in occupational health and safety. I worked for over 20 years as a government regulator in Canada, much like an OSHA organization. One day I got a phone call, and my nephew, who was 22 at the time, fell asleep driving home from work and drove his car off a cliff and died. It got me thinking, “Why aren’t we talking more about sleep and fatigue at work?” It started a long journey of learning the topic. I started meeting with people, trying to figure out who was doing research in this area. One of the things I discovered was that there’s no practical way to measure sleep or fatigue in the workplace. It’s really difficult to go to employers and say “You need to manage this issue” if you can’t even measure it.
I founded a company called Fatigue Science. I partnered with a research organization in Honolulu, and what we did was we built the first sleep and fatigue monitor that was FDA approved. It was an actigraph married to military software. We built a military version, so it was very durable; you could run it over with a car and it would still operate. Other actigraphs that are still being used for research must be handled gently. What we did was tie the actigraph in with U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force mission planning software. They have software that can predict psychomotor vigilance task (PVT)/simple reaction time score based on your sleep history. They use that to plan their missions. We integrated that in with the watch. You can wear the watch today, which is called a Readiband, and pair it with an app on your phone. It will not only tell you what you want to know about your sleep, but it can also tell you your reaction time and what your risk of having an accident is, at any point in time.
I started doing that in 2008, and then I got a phone call from the Vancouver Canucks. They said, “We see this interesting stuff you’re doing in industry, do you think you can help our team?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t think anyone is doing this stuff in sports.” I ended up spending seven seasons with the team. I worked with about 20 different sports teams total. We worked with the Seahawks when they won the Super Bowl, the Dallas Mavericks, soccer teams, baseball teams, etc.
We put these watches on the players for a few weeks at a time so that we could try to figure out which players had serious sleep issues so we could get them into sleep clinics. We also created what we called a team sleep profile so the teams, even though they didn’t know the individual players’ results, could tell, as a team, how long it took players to, for example, fall asleep after games and how many players slept and for how long on flights between games.
We created this profile and then we used the U.S. military planning software and put that sleep data into it, plus we put the NBA and NHL’s 82 game schedule through it, and then we could tell which games they were likely to be fatigued at. Which is nice to know, but you have to actually do something about it. We did quite a few things around it, one of which was have the team stay over after a game. When the Canucks had a game on the East Coast, they often stayed in New York or wherever the last game was, and then flew back the next day. If they flew back the night after a game, they’d get in at 5 in the morning, and if they had a game in the next couple of days, they often lost those games.
I retired from fatigue science about three years ago. What I do now is work with individual athletes. They come to me and I have them wear a watch — they wear it and put the app on their phone — and then I can monitor in real time their sleep and fatigue through my computer since the data is in the cloud. They give me permission to look at the data. I’ll look at it and we’ll talk about what the particular issues are and I guide them through solutions to help their performance.
What’s surprised you the most working with these sports teams and individual athletes regarding their sleep habits?
I was surprised at how long it took for players to get to sleep after games, both in the NBA and NHL. Often, these guys, if they finish a game at 10 or 11 at night, they are not going to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning. I’m also surprised the teams pay no attention to circadian rhythms as it relates to the age of the players. In the professional leagues now, there are a lot of players under 22 years old. The teams tend to travel based on adult circadian rhythms. In other words, they don’t let these guys sleep in.
Another thing that surprises me is everyone focuses on the athletes, but not enough pay attention to the coaching and training staff who have even crazier hours. Same with the officials. I spoke with one NHL referee who told me that when the season’s on, he’s home one or two days per month. And they have to fly commercial. They don’t fly charter flights. It’s very difficult.
How closely do you work with the athletes’ nutritionists? How big of a role does what you eat play into your sleep?
It depends on the team. When I first started with the Canucks in 2008, the general manager brought in a nutritionist and a cook. I’m doing some work in the NBA right now, and nutrition is starting to become bigger part of it. The timing of meals matters around sleep issues. They are certainly paying more attention to that.
What would it take for sleep training and consulting to be more of a norm?
I think part of it is education. There are a lot of messy legal issues around privacy and data. There are a lot of gadgets out there. The way I view it in terms of sleep is there are two grades of actigraphs: consumer-grade like the Fitbit, for which the data has not been validated against PSG. Then there are medical-grade actigraphs, which have been independently validated against PSG. There are only a handful of those around. If you stand back and think about it, there are three reasons why players don’t sleep. The first is the decisions they make outside of their work environment. That includes their sleep environment. Then there are the decisions that are out of their hands —decisions that the team and league make in terms of practices, games and travel. The third is the players’ biology. There are sleep disorders, mental disorders, and organic diseases, and most teams pay zero attention to them. Teams don’t do any diagnosis at all. My business has been successful because we look at all three aspects and, before we talk about providing a solution, we want to know why they’re not sleeping.
I get a lot of inquiries around high school athletes. These are athletes who are students, and they have to juggle family obligations, obligations with their friends, their athletic schedule, the training and games, and they have to also juggle academics. The challenge around that group is that no one is helping them. The athletes are left to time manage themselves, and they don’t have the skills for it. There’s a great opportunity to help them manage their time and their sleep.
For more information, visit www.byrne-co.com.