Over the past decade, the sporting world has seen an increased awareness of the importance of sleep, particularly for athletic performance and recovery. 

But often what’s missing is having a dedicated sleep expert working with the players on a daily basis - which is where Elise comes in. 

Dr Facer-Childs runs the Saints Sleep Program, the first of its kind in the AFL. The program integrates sleep health and management with players, while also collecting data which informs the public and community on the importance of sleep, thanks to the program’s partnership with Monash University

Recently, thanks to TEMPUR, the program established its very own Saints Sleep Hub within the club. Equipped with a bed, relaxing lighting and calming music, players are able to book in a spot in their very own on-site sanctuary to rest. 

We’re one of the only clubs with an integrated sleep specialist in our program, how do you work in with the high-performance team on a day-to-day basis? 

The role is split between running the research program with Monash University and individual consultancy with the players.

On a daily basis, I work within the High Performance Team as the player's sleep coach. There is large individual variability in sleep, where some players may need more support than others. Even with healthy sleepers (whether you’re an athlete or not) we all have things to work on that can optimise our sleep. Unfortunately, the majority of people often see sleep as a luxury and do not prioritise it over other things.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Sleep Hub? 

The Saints Sleep Program has been established up to help our athletes improve sleep for optimal recovery and performance. Under expert guidance, the players undergo sleep assessment to identify areas for intervention.

One of the things we have identified through research in this area, is that strategic power napping can be beneficial for athletes during heavy training days. Therefore, we have teamed up with TEMPUR to provide the players with a state-of-the-art sleep room, complete with TEMPUR mattress and adjustable bedframe to assist players with recovery.

We are really pleased to have partnered with TEMPUR on this project, which we believe will help our players across both men's and women's football programs.

Are there any particular cases that stand out for you at the club?

What’s unique about what we’re doing is that the program is run across both the men and women’s football departments, which is great because they both get access to the support we offer. We are also passionate about doing more research with female athletes, which will help inform the outcomes.

Working one-on-one, I've seen some change in quite a lot of players. For example, when I started working with the Saints 2 years ago, a player presented with very poor sleep, sleeping around 4-5 hours per night. Working closely with them over the past two seasons, we’ve seen a real improvement and now sleep pretty well.

It is important to note that sleep is changing all the time. You can’t just find a quick fix. You need to continuously monitor and support sleep like we do with physical training and rehabilitation programs. Sometimes we sleep well for a decent period of time but then an acute stressor can disrupt sleep.

A key component of the Saints Sleep Program is the fact that it is integrated into the football program and involves continuous support.

With many young parents in the men’s playing group, they probably have a lot more broken sleep than others, how do you take that into consideration?

When you become a parent, sleep will undoubtedly be interrupted as babies don’t have any sense of telling the time until they’re at least a couple of months old. This is not something we can change, but what we can do is find other behavioural modifications you can make to help improve your sleep (and your child’s sleep).

With the athletes it’s an interesting conversation regarding how they prioritise their sleep when they can. Perhaps it’s a discussion with your partner where you can prioritise sleep pre-training or pre-game, so the balance of responsibilities is shifted to allow the athlete to have little bit better sleep when it matters, but to then share the load on other days.

It's important to increase the understanding and awareness of that with our players and their families, which is something we’re working on as well.

You use data to track the player’s sleep quality, time and performance – tell us a little bit about the technology you use?

The gold standard of measuring sleep is something that we call Polysomnography (PSG), which requires a big set-up of electrodes on your head and body. This is quite difficult to do with athletes given their schedules and it’s also something you only typically do for a night or two.

We use research grade actigraphy devices, which areworn on the wrist and allows us to continuously track their sleep, temperature and light over long periods of time. If we identify areas of concern, we would refer the player to investigate if there is a potential sleep disorder.

We also collect measures of mental health and performance metrics to start investigated the relationships between sleep, health and performance.

This data helps us identify areas to target for intervention. For examples a lot of people (in general and athletes) are exposed to a lot of blue light before bed.

Blue light is the predominant kind of light that comes from our phones, laptops and TVs, and when we are exposed to that in the evening, we are telling our bodies to wake up, which then influences our ability to get to and stay asleep.

One of the things we’re working on with the players is using blue light blocking glasses in the evenings to help prepare the body for sleep and allow their natural melatonin to be released.

With the women’s program training late in the evening, similar to many amateur and community sports clubs, can it be hard to get to sleep? What advice do you give the women or anyone struggling in that space? 

There are certain things we can’t control, for example training late and then eating/showering before bed, but something we work on is your wind-down routine - when you get home and prepare for sleep. Controlling your light environment, making sure your bedroom is in optimal for sleep in terms of temperature etc. is very important.

With the link into performance, how much should sporting clubs and athletes prioritise sleep? How much of an impact does it make?

Sleep is the single greatest natural health and performance enhancer.

It’s free so why aren’t we making the most out of it? There’s an abundance of research showing the links between sleep and performance. If you don’t sleep well (we’ve all experienced this) your mood, alertness, performance and decision-making decreases.

Sleep, performance and recovery are highly linked. Another factor to consider is our biology rhythms or body clocks. These individual differences are something we are looking into in the Saints Sleep Program.

Does the work you’re doing with the players inform your research at Monash University? 

Yes, absolutely. We are doing evidenced based research in a population that is often very difficult to collect data on. The fact that we have an industry and research partnership allows us to integrate the program into the football department and high-performance team which is great - but it also allows us to communicate the outcomes in the community. 

Being able to develop novel tools and techniques for athletes, while also increasing the education and awareness for people across sporting organisations and communities is a unique angle to have that other sporting clubs haven't really tapped into.

We want to create a link between research and innovation and then translate that into the best recovery and performance. By developing a research program on athlete’s sleep, we can use that data to help the athlete put things into practice immediately.

Find out more on the work Dr Facer-Childs does:

Twitter: @FacerChilds
Website: www.peaksleeptoelite.com