When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday's Super Bowl, most fans will mistakenly equate great athletic ability with physical strength. Of course, a toned body is necessary for professional or Olympic athletes. But catching a football with one hand or landing a triple axel in figure skating are only the final, most visible, results of activity along a vast number of brain pathways.
Walk into any fitness center and you will see the superficial appearances of fitness. But those neighborhood titans are not standing on an Olympic podium or making $20 million a year, because the defining trait of elite athletes is an elegant mind.
A player like Minnesota's own Antoine Winfield Jr. is unique because his visual and motor cortex processes information faster than his competitors'.
Nearly all fans as well as countless coaches succumb to the bias that muscle mass can differentiate the great from the good. The annals of sports history are replete with examples of talent scouts who failed to recognize an athletic brain.
In the spring of 2000, all 32 NFL teams passed at least five times on the quarterback who would become the GOAT (greatest of all time). Despite his high score on the Wonderlic test, an imperfect 12-minute examination of personality and cognition skills, scouts and general managers passed on Tom Brady until the New England Patriots picked him up in the sixth round of the draft, behind 198 other players.
But over the ensuing two decades the Brady brain has powered a relentlessly successful career. His records, if they are ever broken, will not fall for at least a generation: most games won, six-time Super Bowl champion and four-time Super Bowl MVP. On Sunday, Brady will appear in his record 10th Super Bowl (second for QBs is John Elway with five).
What has powered his success? Like other elite athletes such as LeBron James, Brady attributes his edge to sleeping better than the competition. "Proper sleep has helped me get to where I am today as an athlete and it is something I continue to rely on every day," he says.
The world's fastest human, Usain Bolt, describes sleep as the most important part of his daily training regime and targets 8-10 hours a day with naps before races.
Sleep refines our 100 billion neurons and prunes trillions of synaptic connections, helping us master complicated motor skills.
Sarah Hughes was a struggling 16-year-old figure skater before she met Jim Maas, a sleep specialist at Cornell University. Following Maas's advice, she began skipping morning practice and slept in, thus permitting her brain to solidify the motor pathways laid down in practice the day before.
In 2002 at the Winter Olympics Hughes won the gold medal in figure skating, landing a record seven consecutive triple jumps.
Despite these high-profile examples and reams of scientific studies demonstrating the role of sleep in athletic performance, young athletes are told to wake up early and train. Coaches send groggy players to the field and have them play through sleep deprivation as a futile demonstration of toughness. They might as well pick starters by seeing who can play the longest without drinking water.
It would be better to consider restful sleep as an all-natural performance-enhancing drug. Growth hormone injections are not allowed by the World Anti-Doping Administration. No worries, your own growth hormone is naturally secreted during sleep; all you have to do is get more than your competition. Sleep doping!
Not to mention that sleep boosts the immune system, promotes recovery from concussions and helps young and old minds alike manage stress, balance mood and keep anxiety at bay.
So, if you are dreaming of athletic success, sleep in as long as you can tomorrow.
Michael Howell is vice chair for education in the Department of Neurology at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of the Sleep Performance Institute.