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An Unconventional Management Lesson From the NBA

Here’s an unconventional lesson from the NBA. Flashback to February 2018: it’s four months before the Cleveland Cavaliers would face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals for a second straight year, but right now the Cavs are struggling. For the good of the organization, Head Coach Tyronn Lue is facing a difficult management decision: he’s desperate for more wins – little is more important right now – but a critical team member needs to sit down due to injury.

Now Lue is no stranger to difficult decisions, especially public ones. He’s in his third season as the Cavalier’s head coach – has 22 seasons’ experience as an assistant coach in the NBA including 4 as a Head Coach with the Hawks and the Bucks – but none of it is making this decision any easier. 

If you’re thinking injuries aren’t all that uncommon in professional sports, you’d certainly be correct. Reports of athletes having tweaked, bruised, or sprained something are common – with studies documenting roughly 2% of NBA player exposures experiencing game-related injuries. Even the hardest core fans wouldn’t fault a coach from benching an injured player. This injury however, isn’t so obvious.

The outward signs are relatively easy to see: less energy, poorer cognitive function, less productivity, and a decreased ability to cope with stress – all bad things for professionals of any kind: you, me, and all-star ball players. And the crazy thing is that you’re just as likely to be afflicted by it right now. What is it, you ask? Fatigue.

Fatigue is No Joke

The connection between sleep and success ultimately stems from sleep’s role in promoting optimal brain function. Fatigue kills your “X Factor” first. While you might be able to perform the fundamentals of your job, fatigue cancels the ability to differentiate yourself. 

Though most people are aware that sleep deprivation can make it hard to think clearly and concentrate, few are aware of just how serious the problem can be. Studies have shown that insufficient sleep can negatively impact everything from attention span and working memory to sensory perceptions – skills critical to every entrepreneur and rising executive. 

Even partial sleep deprivation could negatively impact functions such as responding to unexpected events, communication skills, and the ability to pay attention to seemingly small and peripheral details. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. Worse, sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce a person’s social appeal and likability. People who don’t get enough sleep can find it hard to interact and cooperate well with others.

As you may have already noticed, many of these negative effects of sleeplessness are directly tied to factors that determine professional success. Being able to think clearly, make effective decisions and cooperate with others are all hallmarks of people who are successful in their professional lives. If you are getting too little sleep, you’re actively setting yourself up for failure. Which brings us back to basketball…

Cheri Mah, a Clinical and Translational Research Fellow at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Human Performance Center and UCSF School of Medicine, is keenly aware of the connection of sleep and athletic performance. 

“Many of the athletes I work with are surprised at the difference sleep can have on their training, performance, and even schoolwork!” says Mah. While at Stanford University, Mah began studying the habits and performance of the Cardinal men’s basketball team. For two weeks, eleven players used motion-sensing wristbands to determine how long they slept on average (just over 6.5 hours a night). Then, the players were told to try and sleep as much as they could for five to seven weeks, with a goal of 10 hours a night. The results were startling. 

By the end of the extra-sleep period, players had improved their free throw shooting by 11.4 percent and their three-point shooting by 13.7 percent – but best of all, there was an improvement of 0.7 seconds on the 282-foot sprint drill. Every single player on the team was quicker than before the study had started. “It’s often only in hindsight – after they’ve significantly reduced their sleep debt over several weeks – that many athletes realize they were operating at a sub-optimal level.”

Forfeiting… For Real

Not convinced yet? Consider this: In 2014 the LA Clippers were facing back-to-back games, the second on the road, immediately following a seven-game road trip. Legendary coach Doc Rivers found himself considering the unthinkable – forfeiting. “I contemplated keeping the team home, literally,” Rivers says. “We knew we were walking into getting our ass kicked, and that’s what happened.” Rivers was referring to a Jan. 30, 2014 game where his Clippers lost by 19 points, scoring only 11 points in entire third quarter, and now manages his team’s routine to better respond to unfriendly schedule demands. “What is it they say?” Rivers asked. “If you have less than five hours of sleep for three days in a row, your reactions are that of a legally drunk driver? We’ve seen that with our own eyes.” Have you?

Unfortunately, many workers have lost sight of the importance of sleep. Studies have shown that 30 percent of people get six hours of sleep or less per night, the recommended average for a healthy adult. American corporate culture tends to promote and even reward employees who get insufficient sleep, a tendency that costs $411 billion in productivity each year. In the NBA, the impact is far greater than just lost games.

In 2018, the total NBA games lost to injury or illness passed 5,000 for the first time since prior to the 2005-06 season. And Cavs coach Lue was no exception. “I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year.” The solution: Lue benched himself, adding in a statement “While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.” And Lue has good reason.

NBA teams travel more than any other professional league, playing, on average, slightly over three games a week including 41 road games across 4 time zones over a 26-week regular season. That’s a lot of available data…

A Predictable Disadvantage 

Recognizing the impact of fatigue on performance, ESPN set out to analyze the NBA season’s 488 back-to-back games on several factors – home vs. away games, the time elapsed between tip-offs (including hours lost from flying east), how rested opponent’s are, and frequency of play (is the game part of a longer run of four games in five nights, or five games in seven. Not surprisingly, ESPN enlisted the help of Cheri Mah to help construct a predictable formula for identifying “unwindable” games. Last season the formula, which is blind to team’s quality (and awards a “Mah Score” to each instance), correctly predicted the losing team 78 percent of the time. Wouldn’t you like to have similar predictive power over your next out of town business meeting?

Athlete or office worker, sleep is crucial for effective human performance. As coaches and consultants, we routinely travel to potential clients locations making proposals and presentations. And, like you, we’re interested in preserving any advantage we might have. As you’ve no doubt also experienced, we’re simply not as adept at anything in our lives if we don’t sleep well. While there is a significant amount of research on the effects of sleep deprivation, it’s more interesting to consider sleep as an advantageous activity. 

That’s right. Getting more sleep than your competitors gives you a performance advantage. So the next time you consider staying up a little later to make one more pass through your slide deck or spreadsheet, choose sleeping instead. 



Main Photo by Markus Spiske ; Inset Photo by Victoria Heath

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