Sunday, November 29, 2015

Coaching for Results

What makes a great coach? Results!! While we could list all the attributes such as knowledge of the sport, leadership skills,…etc. the answer is really quite simple. It reminds me of an experience my daughter had as freshman thrower at BYU. She was working on the discus one afternoon when throwing legend LJ Silvester came by and watched for awhile. As the session finished he asked her, “What is the most important thing for a thrower to remember”? She thought for minute, wanting to say the “right thing.” Having read much of what he has written and published on the subject of throwing; she answered meekly “rhythm?” He laughed and said “throw far”; a simple answer that requires a lot of thought to understand. As a great American weightlifting coach, Joe Mills, used to say, “I can explain weightlifting in 5 minutes, but it will take you 5 years to understand.”
After 35 years of experience, I have to conclude that coaching is much more art than science. While a good coach is always trying to learn more, the only real measure of a coach is not what he or she knows, but what they can get their athletes to do. Preparation is certainly an important aspect of coaching, but most of all a coach needs to know and care about his athletes. Developing a “program” is certainly an essential beginning point, but the success comes in adapting the program to individual characteristics and circumstances. The best coaches are not those who promote a co-dependent relationship but who develop athletes who can coach themselves. Former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant, quoting a Chinese general, said “ A great leader is someone who can get people to do great things, and when they are done they say, We did it ourselves.” As another great leader said, “We teach people correct principals and let them govern themselves.”
Throwing greats Al Oerter and Hal Connolly both mentioned that a simple towel was one of their most influential coaches.
They put it out on the field as a marker and tried to surpass it. When they did, they moved the towel and until they could surpass it again. While they doubtless also benefited from feedback from others, the bottom line is they learned what worked for them and became very independent and self-reliant athletes. When an athlete can succeed without a coach, that is coaching at the highest level.

My friend Mike Burgener coaching for results...............

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It's Tough to Learn When You Think You Know Everything Already

Great coaches are always learning and looking for ways to help their athletes improve.

Last post I told the story of our team attending a football camp at UNLV a few years ago. One component of the camp was a visit to the UNLV Athletic weight room and some instruction from the strength and conditioning coach. At that time the head S&C coach at UNLV was a guy named Mark Philippi. If you are into strength sports at all, that name should certainly ring a bell. Mark began his career as a great Powerlifter, then entered the world of Strongman competitions where he distinguished himself as one of the best in the world. He is now a very successful trainer in Las Vegas.
The camp schedule called for us to meet in the weight room in the evening after dinner. Because it was important to me, I made sure we got there first and our boys were seated on the floor in the first row.(crosslegged, Indian style lol) Coach Philippi began by explaining the basics of the Back Squat and Bench Press. With his powerlifting backround, he was very detailed in his explanations. Next he explained that there were some quick lifts that were also helpful. He called out one of his Grad Assts. Who he introduced as a Collegiate National Powerlifting Champ with deadlift of 650 lb. He was going to demonstrate a Power Snatch. There was 50 kg on the bar. While he did manage to get the bar from the floor to overhead, it was pretty awkward and really slow. It was obvious that he really didn’t grasp the finer points. One of my boys seated in the front snickered a little. Coach Philippi is a take charge guy and doesn’t tolerate wise guys. He called my player out saying, “Do you think something is funny?” My player honestly replied, “He doesn’t know how to do it, we have girls at our school who can do more than that.” I held my breath and mentally reviewed my CPR skills. I tried to think about what I was going to tell the boy’s mother and what I might say at the funeral. Mark had the next move and he said, “Maybe you would like to come up here and show us how?” Well, the young man walked up and performed 3 quick explosive snatches then a few overhead squats and set the bar down. I will never forget (and am still grateful for) Coach Philippi’s reaction. He didn’t get defensive or exercise a need to exert authority. He said, “Hey, that’s really good. Where did you learn to do that?” the player pointed towards me and said, “Our coach taught us!” Afterwards we had a long conversation about the Olympic style lifts. Coach Philippi explained that he wanted to use them more in his programs , but he didn’t have a real extensive backround in that area and wanted to learn more. We talked about a few technique basics and parted friends. He and his asst. were out on the field the next day encouraging our kids. Later that summer I gave a brief welcoming address at the NSCA Convention as it was held in Phoenix and I was the Arizona state director. Mark and his staff were there and we conversed some more. Needless to say, I have always been a Mark Philippi fan. He sets a great example of what a truly strong man is. He could have crushed a smart aleck high school kid and his small-town coach. Instead he chose to treat us with respect. He wasn’t afraid to admit that while he knew and had accomplished a great deal, there were some things he was still learning. He was still willing to learn and wasn’t too proud to be taught by anyone whom he thought could help. I have tried to be the same way.
When a man has confidence in himself, he doesn’t have to carry around a huge ego. I have met far too many “Strength Coaches” with far less accomplishments and much more attitude; Coaches who are afraid to show that they might not know everything or who feel the need to exercise authority and crush any differences of thought or opinion. It seems that the profession is full of these. I am grateful for the real coaches who are confident enough to value discussion and always ready to learn something new.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Competition Readiness

The 2015 version of the  Monument Valley Mustangs football team. Finished regular season 10-0.

On the eve of the USA hosting the World Weightlifting Championships in Houston, Texas, here are some observations and an experience with assessing competition readiness.

Mustang spirit in Monument valley.
Navajo Warrior
It is interesting to watch international sporting events like weightlifting and track and observe the different ways that athletes prepare themselves mentally for competition. Some are very vocal and animated. That is their nature and works for them. Some are very quiet, intense and focused. Others are relaxed and even zen-like in their approach.

The Summer of 1995 we took our football team to Las Vegas, Nevada for a full contact camp at UNLV. We planned, worked, and saved and arrived with a group of 22 young men. All of whom were members of the Navajo tribe. When we arrived and checked in, it was apparent that we were different than all the other teams that were there. As we walked into the dorm area to find our rooms, everything got quiet and you could hear the whispers, ”Look! Indians!” The first time we came into the cafeteria we got the same reaction. It was like EF Hutten was talking.(I dated myself with that one)
We reported for the first practice session and went through our usual team warm-up. Next it was off to individual position drills with UNLV staff and then the session ended with a team challenge. All the teams lined up behind the 10 yard line while the UNLV staff would select teams to take the field on either defense or offense. The selected teams would have four downs to get 10 yards. If the offense got into the endzone they won. If not, the defense won. The winners stayed in until they lost. I don’t remember exactly how many teams were there, but there were more than 20 from Nevada, Utah, California, and Arizona. So at the end of the practice we were standing as a team in the midst of a bunch of wild, screaming teams from around the western states. Navajo style is not to be loud or vocal, but never mistake that for less than intense. We just stood there with our arms folded waiting for a chance. The UNLV coaches called out a lot of the teams for the challenge, then closed practice without us having a chance. At the next session we were ignored again, but as it was about to close we sent our QB over to the UNLV staff to tell them that we wanted a chance. The coach in charge pushed him away and said, “You aren’t ready to play football! You don’t have any spirit!” Then he walked over to our group and said, “You guys had better get a clue! Unless you show some spirit here you’ll never get a chance!” I stepped into his face and said, “Hey, is this a football camp or a cheerleading camp? Give us a chance!” He smirked at me and sarcastically said, “Allright, I’ll give you chance! Get in there on offense and show us what you can do!” By then everyone on the field saw and heard what was going on. We went out and lined up against a team with big guys and gold helmets. We had no idea where they might be from or who they were.
On our first play we fumbled the snap from center. We at least recovered it to the laughter of everyone who was waiting for us to make fools of ourselves. Next snap we ran a dive and gained 3 yards. Third down we option off of the dive and are in the end zone. Dead silence thundered all around. Lol No one was expecting that. They called out a few more teams and we scored on each of them. The session ended and we headed back to the dorm. Coach Mark Weber, the UNLV O-line coach(who later worked at BYU) caught up with us and said, “Hey, that was the damndest thing I’ve ever seen! Do you know that no one has scored on those guys in 2 years!” The next session we stood silently while the other teams all demonstrated their “spirit” by yelling and screaming. They called out teams here and there and this time they did not ignore us. The rest of the week we scored on every team that was matched with us. At the end of the week there was a tournament format and we came out on top of the heap. By then a lot of the other teams and coaches were asking us what our “secret” was. Like there was some mystical “Indian Power” that we were using. Some asked what conference we played in. We told them NFL, Navajo Football League! Even the UNLV coach who challenged us that first day with the “You have no spirit” tirade asked if he could address our team before we left. To his credit, he apologized for his first impression of us and said, “You really taught me something, spirit does not have to mean a lot of yelling and screaming. You guys really are football players.” This was a special group of athletes and we enjoyed a lot of success together. Many have gone on to productive lives. There is a civil engineer, an Air Force fitness instructor, an Army officer, several construction workers and our current high school athletic director to name a few.

What does this have to do with lifting, throwing or athletics? Some coaches think that all athletes will show their "readiness" in the same way. They think an athlete has to be "fired up" in order to compete well. Some athletes think they can only get ready by being loud.
Bottom line: mental preparedness is very individual and you can’t always tell if an athlete is ready or not unless you know them very well. Competitive spirit can look very different from individual to individual. As the saying goes, "You can't always judge a book by it's cover."

Emotions are often more evident after the performance.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Building a Professional Toolbox

The Chinese start young in building their professional tool boxes.

A week or so ago we talked about tools. The opening statement was, "If the only tool in your box is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." In any well stocked tool box there is a variety of tools. Some are basic and simple, others more complex. Generally, the more complex, the more expensive and harder to obtain.I tell my students that the exercises we use in our routines are like tools. We can use them to sculpt our bodies or to improve performance and/or appearance. Some exercises are very simplistic and easy to learn; such as machine movements. I tell them I could teach a monkey to those. It doesn't take much thought. These are like cheap tools. Easy to acquire. They have their purposes, but are very limited. Other exercises are more complex such as squats, presses, and pulls like power cleans and power snatches. They are more expensive in terms of the time invested to learn and master sound technique. But they are much more valuable in terms of results. I tell them that the most expensive tools they could obtain for their box are the full squat clean and jerk exercises and the full snatch lift.These definitely require an investment of time to learn. But once mastered they are a tool that will allow you to maximize strength, power, and flexibility. I am amazed that many throwers, even some very elite level athletes, have poor technique when it comes to doing some of these complex lifts. (Of course there are also many with great lifting technique) Usually the reasoning is that "I'm a thrower, not a lifter. I don't have time to work on lifting technique." Time is the essence of life. We can either spend or invest our time and we never really know how much time we have. It seems to me that developing great exercise technique and taking time to master the most complex lifts is a wise investment of time.Great technique allows an athlete to lift heavier and safer. A good craftsman takes time to care for and to maintain his tools. A serious athlete will invest the time needed to develop and maintain his exercise tool box.
A wide variety of tools can be used to address specific needs.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Getting an Education

Arnold around the time we first met him in Pittsburgh.

It was about 1971. A couple buddies and I decided to skip a day of school to drive down to Pittsburgh for an educational opportunity we couldn't miss. Arnold was coming to the YMCA and he was going to tell us all of his secrets and answer all of our questions about getting big and strong. We had been lifting in our garage for several years and faithfully reading the popular lifting magazines of the day. Because of our close proximity to Muscletown USA as York, PA was then known around the world, we were partial to Bob Hoffman and Strength and Health. But that didn't stop us from looking at the Weider magazines like Muscle/Builder Power now and then too. While were mostly interested in getting stronger for football and track, we also competed in local Weightlifting and Powerlifting meets and dreamed about looking like Arnold or Dave Draper. The idea that strength, power, or hypertrophy might require differences in training had never occurred to us at that time. We wanted it all. Besides, at that time it was not uncommon for someone to compete in all three iron disciplines. A local lifting hero, Tony Fratto, was an example of that. Anyway, a chance to meet Arnold and learn some of his secrets was too much for us to resist. While Arnold was already becoming legendary to the small population of iron athletes, he was still relatively unknown outside of that fraternity. He was not yet a movie star and had "only" won Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia a few times. His english was still rough and his accent heavier than now but he looked amazing. As he spoke to the couple dozen of us that afternoon in the Y weight room, we were a little surprised that he was doing basically the same exercises as we were. Squats, presses of various kinds, rowing and even pulls. He told us he started as a competitive lifter when he was a teenager. We were waiting for the secret methods, but in the end we decided that the secret was not in his exercises. Maybe it was what he was eating. Again we were somewhat disappointed to find out he ate cornflakes for breakfast and pretty much the same stuff as we ate. Finally during the question and answer time at the finish we asked him how many cans of Super Pro 101 he drank each day.

We saw the pictures of him and Dave Draper draining cans of the stuff with bikini babes hanging all over them. It was in the magazines every month. We saved our lunch money and bought the stuff as often as we could.It was about $1.25 a can. Pretty expensive for that time. It didn't taste very good either but we faithfully downed the stuff, worried that we weren't getting enough. Well, Arnold reared his head back and let out a huge laugh, ...."I don't drink that s*#%t!!!." "It's business, Joe Weider, he pays me and takes my picture, I don't drink that s#*&t!!!!" Talk about losing our innocence! Arnold doesn't drink Super Pro 101? Is the Pope really Catholic? Our faith was sorely tested that day but we learned a valuable lesson at a relatively young age. You can't believe everything you read in the magazines. Imagine that! As time passed we discovered that the secret that we didn't know about then was spelled with a big D. That was a long time ago, but things really haven't changed. Arnold is still in business. There are still no secrets, the basic exercises still work the best, and you can't believe everything you read, even if it's on the internet.
Unless, of course, you read it on Haske Warrior Strength!!

Tony Fratto was a world powerlifting champion from western Pennsylvania in the early 70's who also competed in weightlifting and bodybuilding.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Endurance vs. Conditioning

Working hard at the right things brings success.

Below is a great explanation of a concept that is largely misunderstood by all but the best coaches. Simply put, it's not just about working hard, but working smart. Working hard at the right things is what brings success.

The statement is simple – Endurance is the most overrated of all sports specific qualities.


Because endurance is neither necessary nor the limiting factor in most sports.

Conditioning is. Where is the difference?

Definition of Endurance and Conditioning as follows:

Endurance is the ability to maintain a certain effort with minimal fatigue – A classic example is a marathon. At a marathon it´s crucial to run 2+ h in one go with minimal fatigue.

Conditioning is the ability to repeat a certain effort with minimal fatigue – Classic examples are team sports like Soccer, American Football, Basketball and Ice hockey. In those sports it is crucial to keep fatigue between the first and the last sprint (and all the others in between) as minimal as possible.

Most Olympic, Team- and Combat Sports are cyclical, that means certain efforts must be repeated. A 100m sprinter has to repeat his performance in heats, semi-finals and finals. A thrower has 6 attempts per competition and an olympic weightlifter has 3 per discipline.  If the performance decreases too much from attempt to attempt then his conditioning is the limiting factor.

A more extensive example is soccer. Depending on the position of a player he runs about 8-12km per game. From which he runs 400-1200m above 85% of his top speed. The remaining 8-10km are walking, trotting and hardly relevant for the game.

These 400-1200m are crucial. The average sprinting distance is about 17m. Sprints over 30m, that´s the distance between mid- and penalty line, are very rare.

The critical distance is 0-5 m. That´s the famous “one step faster”. Based on player statistics of the English Premier League, players with the highest salary, regardless of their position have one thing in common, they are the fastest over 0-5m.

At an average sprinting distance of about 17m and a game-relevant total distance of 400-1200m those are about 24 to 70 sprints per game. Assuming a uniform load density, it is a load of 2-3 seconds followed by a 1:20-4:00 minute break. I sprints are repeated with minimal rest its more than 3 in a row before the ball is out of sight.

So what is critical for a game in this case in terms of physical qualities?

Endurance or Conditioning?

Critical are those 24 to 70 sprints in under 90 minutes game time and their repetition with minimal fatigue, not endurance. Endurance isn´t relevant in soccer because of the short bursts of sprints they do.

To run 10-60 minutes at once has very poor correlation with the ability to repeat 24 to 70 sprints in 90 minutes with minimal fatigue.

100m Sprinter and YPSI Athlete Sven Knipphals is the second fastest German this year and placed 4th in the 100m relay at the Track & Field World Championship in Beijing this year. He needs the conditioning to sustain his performance in a multi-race event and he needs speed-endurance to maintain his topspeed from 60m till the finish line…
2 forms of Endurance

Endurance at high intensity – that is the ability to maintain a stress of high intensity upright with minimal fatigue. A good example is a 100m sprinter. A sprinter reaches his top speed after 60-70m. From 60-70m the critical factor becomes maintaining the top speed as long as possible without getting tired. In this case we speak of speed endurance. Usain Bolt is a great example for this. His greatest advantage over his opponents, and the reason why he is even more dominant over 200m than over 100m, is his exceptional speed endurance, the ability to maintain his top speed with minimal fatigue and leave all his opponents behind after 60-70m.

Endurance at low intensity – that is the ability to maintain a stress of low intensity upright with minimal fatigue. A good example is the marathon. In a marathon it´s crucial to maintain a performance for 2+ h with minimal fatigue. In one go and without interruptions.

Intensity – definition: Intensity is the load of a performance in relation to the maximal performance. A performance at high intensity for example is a sprint over 50 meters at maximum speed or BB Back Squats for 3 reps with 90 % of 1RM. In contrast to this, a performance of low intensity is a run over 10000m at maximum speed or squats for 25 reps with 50 % of 1RM. That means intensity is not defined on the subjective level of effort but correlates performance with maximum power/effort.

Both forms of endurance, especially the last one, are not relevant in most Olympic-, Team- and Combat Sports because the duration of the load in those sports is far lower.

In most Olympic-, Team- and Combat sports conditioning is critical. The ability to repeat a performance with minimal fatigue.

 Especially in Combat Sports like MMA it´s crucial to differentiate between Endurance and Conditioning, because the duration of the effort is very short and the effort density is very high. Peter Sobotta is unbeaten for 8 fights and won his last 7 fights of which 6 where all TKO via Rear Naked Choke (Photo ©Tomasz Radzik)
2 forms of Conditioning

Conditioning at high volume – the ability to repeat a certain performance very often with minimal fatigue.  The best example is soccer, where depending on the position of the player the average sprinting distance has to be repeated up to 70 times per game with minimal fatigue.

Conditioning at low volume – the ability to repeat a certain performance a few times with minimal fatigue. Best example is Olympic Weightlifting. There you only have to repeat an attempt 3 times per discipline and competition – so 3 Reps of the Snatch and 3 Reps of the Clean & Jerk, thats it.

The lower the volume, the more critical becomes the performance during the attempt itself. It is not that crucial to repeat that performance often.

The higher the volume, the more critical is the ability to repeat it. Therefore in weightlifting the ability to repeat a performance is less important than the absolute performance, namely to move maximal weight. In comparison with weightlifting soccer players need lower maximal- and explosive strength level than weightlifters – but higher levels of conditioning. As the ability to repeat maximal Sprinting Speed for the 90 minute game is critical.

Training Endurance vs. Conditioning

The training for Endurance and Conditioning is obviously very different.

The Training of Endurance basically includes a higher volume of total work, a lower -if any – number and duration of breaks and lower average intensity of effort. While the training of conditioning basically comprises a lower total volume of work and an increased number and duration of breaks at higher average intensity of effort.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Get Stronger or Die

This Nitschke was a linebacker, not a philosopher. But he certainly knew about pain and performance.

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.-

                                      Friedrich Nietzsche

I have often heard this quote from a German philosopher who was named after a Green Bay linebacker, I guess. While it is a great motivational sound bite, I’m not sure if it’s really true. Even if it is, I am sure it is not the best training philosophy for most of us.
As I reread the Jan. 2010 edition of Long & Strong, one of my favorite publications, one theme struck me. Almost each one of the articles where a thrower was profiled mentioned the fact that they are discovering or have discovered that often less is more when it comes to training. Quality of work is of much greater value than quantity of work. As I pondered this I couldn’t help but think of two coaches I have had the privilege to cross paths with and their different approaches to maximal results.
In 1989 the Bulgarians were on top of the weightlifting world and the reports were that they were training to the maximum several times a day, every day. Many of us wondered if that were really possible and, if so, how were they doing it? A Bulgarian coach, Angel Spassov, visited the U.S. and presented several clinics around the country sponsored by the NSCA. Being too poor to travel to Bulgaria myself, when I heard a clinic was to be held in Phoenix, I scraped together the fee and loaded my family into our truck and went. While we later found out that Mr. Spassov fed us some information that was suspect, (like the notion that Bulgarian lifters did step-ups for leg strength instead of squats) it was still a very eye opening experience for me. I still have my notes from that day in my files. He spent a great deal of time talking about natural testosterone production and it’s importance in training. Dr. Mike Stone and others have since published research that clarifies and in some cases contradicts the Bulgarian claims, but that is not the point of this post.
The really interesting topic, to me, was their process for selection of weight lifters. They scouted schools and screened boys aged 10. (This was just as women’s weightlifting was beginning to be popular, girls weren’t mentioned) The test battery was Standing Long Jump (2 legs), Vertical Jump, (1 and 2 Legs), 30 meter sprint, Pullups, and 4kg Overhead Shot Throw. Flexibility was screened by performing an overhead squat with a jerk grip. Selected boys trained in a “school” for athletes living in a dormitory type setting. Spassov claimed that their success rate was 1 world champion for every 66 boys in the program at a cost of about 6 million Bulgarian dollars. (That is what I wrote in my notes that day)
When asked about any psychological motivation techniques, it took him quite awhile to understand the question. Finally, he stated that there is no such thing as psychological motivation, only natural selection. Athletes who rose to the top received benefits of better living conditions and travel. Those who didn’t improve were sent back home. To me, it seems that the Bulgarian “success” was not a result of a sound system of programming, but of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Take a group of athletes selected for their natural attributes and train them as hard as possible. The few who are genetically robust enough to adapt and survive will rise high. Of course he also mentioned the importance of “medicinal support” in the process. If Spassov wasn’t pulling our legs, there are probably 60 or so broken lifters behind each champion. East Germany had similar, but even more structured approach and claimed an even higher success ratio, but of course we now know that “medicinal support” was also a major factor in their system. Today it is well documented that China uses a similar selection and sport school process with a huge population to feed into it.
Here in the United States we have a different way of looking at things. American athletes are not selected, but voluntarily choose to participate and with few exceptions (Todd Marinovich for example, lol) are not in a tightly controlled environment. One of the greatest lifters and athletic champions ever to represent the United States is relatively unknown outside of the hard core lifting community. Tamio (Tommy) Kono won 6 World Championships, 2 Olympic Golds and 1 Silver, 3 Pan-Am championships, and set world records in 4 different bodyweight classes. He also served as National Coach for both Germany and Mexico as well as coaching many U.S. National and Olympic teams. It has been my privilege to converse with him several times and even had lunch together once. He is the most sincere and humble gentleman you could ever wish to meet. He has written a book “WEIGHTLIFTNG, OLYMPIC STYLE” which any coach who uses lifting in their training should have. It explains technique in simple language and the competitive experiences he shares are worth the price alone. I don’t know if he was the inspiration for Sylvestor Stallone’s story in Rocky IV or not, but he really lived that story as he was invited to a lifting meet in Russia and arrived with no coach or interpreter. He overcame many obstacles and was victorious. I am leaving out the details in hopes you will read it for yourself. The mental aspects of competing that are explained are relevant to all athletes. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Tommy began lifting while in a Japanese-American internment camp during WWII and for much of his career training in a low ceiling basement with a dirt floor.
While I could write volumes about Tommy Kono’s accomplishments and character, my point is that Tommy very bluntly proclaims that less is more, quality trumps quantity, and it is better to be slightly undertrained than overtrained. He does not mince words when he states that the Bulgarian-type approach to training was born of the necessity to keep the young men tired and busy (as they had no responsibilities outside of lifting) rather then any scientific reasoning. There is an American system and it consists of intelligently applying training in proper doses to stimulate improvement. It is highly individualized, requires thought and adaptation, and it can be integrated into a full life that allows for education, career, and family responsibilities. If you read the latest “LONG AND STRONG” you will find that many modern track athletes also agree.
If you would like to learn more about Tommy, purchase his book, or his excellent knee and waistband products visit the link listed on our links below: www.tommykono.com
Also a few youtube video segments of Tommy teaching the lifts were posted on this site in 2009. You can scroll down the archives to find them.

This is what the philosopher looked like.

Monday, November 2, 2015

More Sleep

Quality sleep is essential to optimal progress.

Sleep is the most basic and most essential recovery aid. Thankfully it is both free and enjoyable. Below are some good suggestions on how to take full advantage and maximize the benefits.

Research scientists and sleep medicine doctors share the counsel they give to the fittest bodies.

Just because you don’t compete on the level of a professional athlete doesn’t mean you don’t want to employ the strategies they use to build those superior physiques. If you’re skimping on sleep, though, you may as well throw in the proverbial towel. “No matter how good your nutrition is, no matter how good your exercise routine is, if your sleep isn’t any good, the other two don’t matter—that’s a brave statement, but it’s true,” says James Maas, Ph.D., a sleep and performance expert who works with professional and collegiate athletes.

Maas estimates 75 percent of athletes are deprived—which can lower immunity, alter cognition, slow reaction time, and lengthen recovery, he says. But until recently, athletes, physicians with little training in sleep medicine, and coaches who didn’t understand the shuteye/success link shared a blasé attitude toward sleep. Today, teams are smartening up, and even hiring sleep consultants.

“Athletes are always looking for the silver bullet—that ‘something’ that will make them play better than their opponents,” says Maas. “I think we have that silver bullet: sleep.”

Below, top sleep experts share their best sleep advice for athletes, specifically:

1. Do a 3-week early bedtime trial.

“There is no way to cheat sleep and still pursue optimal athletic performance. There will be a price to be paid. I’d challenge people to prioritize sleep for three weeks. Go to bed when you feel tired—there’s no rule about any bedtime being too early. Listen to your body. High-performance athletes are used to doing this. See how you feel during day and how you perform athletically. What happens is, people realize how powerful sleep can be, then they gladly elevate sleep on their list of priorities.” — Nathaniel F. Watson, M.D., President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), and board-certified in sleep medicine and neurology

2. Track sleep like you track performance.

“Athletes measure daytime statistics but tend to completely ignore what’s as if—if not more—important: what happens to the body at night. People tend to overestimate how much they sleep by 47 minutes—they’re not trying to lie, the brain just does not know. I encourage athletes to monitor sleep through devices like Beddit, a mattress strip that measures heart rate, breathing, and every second of your night. It gives you hints as to how you screwed up. With permission, a coach can see exactly how an athlete’s night was.” — James Maas, Ph.D.

3. Drop the temperature.

“Athletes often ‘sleep hot’. They sweat a lot at night—that has to do with metabolic activity being higher. So a cooler bed environment makes a lot of sense.” — W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, who consults elite athletes on sleep

4. Build in wind-down time.

“Prioritize a regular 20- to 30-minute routine before bed to help your body anticipate sleep—journal, meditate, or read a book. I also recommend light stretching or yoga and often suggest partnering this with breathing exercises to activate the parasympathetic system, which can aid in relaxing and calming your body.” — Cheri Mah, a sleep and athletic performance research scientist at the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University who advises teams in the NBA, NFL, and NHL

5. Unplug 4 hours before bed

“We speculate on the amount of time that you should cut out electronics before bed—but my own personal advice is to eliminate it 4 hours before bedtime. Athletes need to be developing skills where they are not engaged, so they can relax. There’s no question that the light on these devices has an impact on sleep, but I think the inner activity and interaction they cause is more of an issue.” —Charles H. Samuels M.D., medical director at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary who has served as a sleep and performance consultant for the Calgary Flames

6. Practice calming your mind.

"One attribute that makes athletes good at what they do is that they’re detailed oriented—they don’t leave stones unturned. But a lot of the athletes I work with struggle to go from the mode they’re in on the field to being able to fall asleep. This can be practiced. The idea that you ‘can’t shut your brain off’ is not your lot in life. You can say, ‘I can’t hit a curve ball’ or you can say, ‘I’m going to get busy learning how to hit a curve ball.’ You just have to work on it. A device called themuse, a brain sensing headband that gives you feedback about if and when your mind is settled, is a great tool.” — W. Christopher Winter, M.D.