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Can Napping Improve Football Performance?

Certain cultures around the world have a tradition of taking a short daytime nap, or siesta. Is it possible that this tradition could improve football performance?


Introduction

I think most of us understand that sleep is important if we want to feel and perform our best. This is because sleep is thought to play an important role in recovery from various forms of fatigue, such as exercise, travelling, and psychological pressure. Considering that a football match can lead to a reduction in performance and fatigue lasting for 14–72 hours afterwards (1), and that many top-level footballers travel often while experiencing a lot of psychological pressure, any method to reduce this fatigue could be a promising intervention.


That’s where daytime napping comes in. Previous research has reported that athletes may suffer from a lack of sleep quantity and quality (2,3), so daytime napping could be especially beneficial in this group of people. In addition, daytime napping is a low-cost, easy, and convenient way to get more sleep which may be more palatable than an earlier bedtime.


For all of these reasons, daytime napping has gathered interest as a tool to improve football performance among researchers. Today, we’ll review a study that investigated whether daytime napping could improve cognitive, passing, and scanning performance (4).


The Study

Fourteen collegiate Japanese footballers participated in this study (4). The study involved completing a cognitive test, followed by a football passing test, the day after a match. The players completed this on two occasions, separated by a month. However, on one occasion the players napped for a ~40-minute interval beforehand (Figure 1). Therefore, any differences in the cognitive and passing tests between occasions were likely attributable to having napped (or not).


Study design.

Figure 1. The structure of this trial. On each occasion, players underwent a cognitive task (i.e., TMT tasks), followed by a passing test. On one occasion, they had a nap beforehand; on the other occasion, they didn’t (4).


The Cognitive Test

The footballers completed the Trail Making Test (TMT)—a neuropsychological test that measures cognitive flexibility and cognitive abilities associated with football performance. The TMT asks participants to connect a series of 25 numbers (that are randomly distributed) in an ascending order. It also asks individuals to sort letters of the alphabet in order.


The Passing Test

The footballers completed a modified version of the Loughborough Soccer Passing Test. In this test, the footballer stands in the middle of four coloured targets and has to pass to whichever target the examiner calls out the colour of (Figure 2). This happens 10 times in total, and the total time taken to complete the test is recorded. In addition, the player’s scanning activity (i.e., how many times they scanned) throughout the test was recorded by the examiner.


Design of Loughborough Soccer Passing Test.

Figure 2. Schematic illustration of the passing test. The examiner (1) passes to the player (2), the colour of the target (3) is called out, and the player (2) passes to whichever colour target was called out (3). This is performed 10 times, and the time taken to complete the test is recorded (4).


Results

There were no differences in nighttime sleep duration between the two testing occasions, nor were there differences in subjective sleepiness or perceived fatigue before completing the cognitive and passing tests on both occasions. In addition, there were no major differences in time taken to complete the cognitive test between occasions. However, when players had napped, they completed the passing test significantly quicker than when they didn’t nap (Figure 3). In addition, they scanned more often during this passing test when they had napped (Figure 3).


Results of the study show passing and scanning performance improved after napping.

Figure 3. When players napped before the passing test, they completed it about two seconds quicker (on average), and scanned about two times more throughout (on average) (4).


Takeaways

This study seems to support a role for daytime napping in the improvement of aspects of football performance. However, there were some limitations to this study:

  • The study sample of 14 players was small

  • The device used to measure sleep time during the napping occasion was not scientifically validated, meaning we are not sure how long the players actually slept for during the 40-minute napping period (it was reported to be ~24 minutes)

  • The number of scans was determined visually by an examiner, and not verified by technology, which is open to error

  • The improvement in passing and scanning may not translate to an improvement in a game scenario


With the limitations noted, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to a short daytime nap, and as the study reported, there may be possible benefits for certain aspects of football performance.


Summary

Altogether, this study reported potential football performance benefits to daytime napping the day after a match (4). Considering that elite athletes tend to have poor sleep quantity and quality (2,3), and that football matches tend to produce lasting fatigue (1), this strategy may hold promise for improving sleep, reducing fatigue, and improving football performance.


If you are interested in levelling up your football skills, contact us at [email protected] to book in with our expert coaches for a session. And remember to sign up to our mailing list to be notified when a new blog article drops. Don’t worry, we don’t spam!


Thanks so much for reading, and have a lovely weekend!


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121

Twitter/X: @PatrickElliott0


References

(1) Ispirlidis I, Fatouros IG, Jamurtas AZ, Nikolaidis MG, Michailidis I, Douroudos I, Margonis K, Chatzinikolaou A, Kalistratos E, Katrabasas I, Alexiou V, Taxildaris K. Time-course of changes in inflammatory and performance responses following a soccer game. Clin J Sport Med. 2008;18(5):423–31. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/cjsportsmed/abstract/2008/09000/time_course_of_changes_in_inflammatory_and.10.aspx


(2) Lastella M, Roach GD, Halson SL, Sargent C. Sleep/wake behaviours of elite athletes from individual and team sports. Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(2):94–100. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24993935/


(3) Leeder J, Glaister M, Pizzoferro K, Dawson J, Pedlar C. Sleep duration and quality in elite athletes measured using wristwatch actigraphy. J Sports Sci. 2012;30(6):541–5. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22329779/


(4) Nishida M, Okano S, Ichinose A, Suyama S, Youn S. Daytime Napping Benefits Passing Performance and Scanning Activity in Elite Soccer Players. J Sports Sci Med. 2023;22(1):75–83. Available at: https://www.jssm.org/hfabst.php?id=jssm-22-75.xml


Technical Terms

Scanning: This typically refers to the visual search behaviour of players on the field. It involves players actively observing their surroundings, constantly scanning the field to gather information about the position of teammates, opponents, and open spaces. Effective scanning allows players to make quick and informed decisions, such as passing the ball, dribbling, or positioning themselves defensively or offensively. It's a crucial skill that contributes to situational awareness and overall performance on the field.

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