Pre-season planning begins in October for many GAA inter-county teams. Management, coaches and athletes come together to devise strategies to achieve success in the new season. There is an emphasis on strength and conditioning, injury prevention, training weekends, recovery sessions and the scheduling of matches.
My research began with pre-season testing of three GAA inter-county teams, both football and hurling. I was screening teams for hamstring muscle injuries as part of my master’s in the University of Limerick when my supervisor, Dr Kieran O’Sullivan, encouraged me to explore the sleep and well-being of these athletes. I was fascinated with the findings and decided to change direction and pursue a PhD to investigate sleep in elite athletes.
Our sleep study was simple in design. We gave our three teams, 69 elite male Gaelic footballers and hurlers, a set of validated questionnaires related to sleep, general health, stress and mood. The sleep questionnaire is a research tool that enabled us to classify the players as ‘poor sleepers’ or ‘good sleepers’. Questions were asked around the time taken to fall asleep, the quality of sleep and duration, sleep disturbances and daytime dysfunction. We then compared the general health and well-being of the poor sleepers and the good sleepers.
We found almost half (47.8 per cent) were poor sleepers, and those who were poor sleepers had significantly lower general health, increased stress and lower mood. This clearly is not what we want in elite athletes who aim to push the limits of their minds and bodies in pursuit of sporting success. Our study was not without limitations; especially, the self-report nature of the questionnaires. However, if nearly 50 per cent of our athletes are telling us they aren’t getting enough sleep, we have a problem.