Creating a Sleep Paradigm Shift
Nick Littlehales is an elite sleep coach who has previously worked with the world’s top football teams including Manchester United, Real Madrid and Arsenal, analysing players’ sleeping schedules and helping improve performance.
He has also worked with many other leading teams and organisations including British Cycling and Team Sky, leading Rugby Union and League teams, and athletes at the Olympic level.
A former chairman of the UK Sleep Council, he has used decades of experience to write Sleep: The Myth of Hours, the Power of Naps… and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind. This innovative book seeks to redefine the meaning of sleep and help us better utilise the time we spend in bed.
For those who haven’t read your number 1 bestseller, could you just give a brief overview of your experience as a sleep coach?
It’s always difficult to give a brief overview after over 35 years industry and 22 years in elite sport, but I loved sport as a teenager and that’s where I wanted to be, unfortunately, it didn’t work out. I fell into the furniture industry with a company called Slumberland, who were based in Oldham, Greater Manchester. They had offices all around the world and were a leading brand. I very quickly rose up to international sales and marketing director at 32. I was always pushing the boundaries related to sleep and I would wander around the world studying people sleep and forming my own ideas.
We didn’t have a Sleep Council at the time so a few of my like-minded collaborators got together and created one which I was chairman of for a while. After that, I organised sponsorship for Oldham Athletic, so they had Slumberland on their shirts in the mid-90s. With Oldham’s Manchester connections, it eventually paved the way to my work with Manchester United. I initially sent a letter to Sir Alex Ferguson and started a conversation. After that, I began visiting the club and talking to one of the physios there, Dave Fevre. I wasn’t a sleep coach at that point but I was actively talking to them about sleep and recovery.
A lot of the players in the 90s treble-winning side were homegrown, they played for the England squad and that sparked off some interest with the national team with regards to what I was doing. This led to a conversation with Gary Lewin. At the time, Gary was a physio for the England national squad during the ’98 World Cup in France, but he was also the physio at Arsenal. The spotlight then shifted to Arsenal as Arsene Wenger had just arrived and he had a lot of different views and approaches.
Working with Arsenal was interesting because instead of talking to the United players who were mostly homegrown, I was talking to French, Nigerian and Czech players, all sorts of nationalities and cultures. I think this was when I actually became a sleep coach. I was considered a bit of a maverick for my ideas but I had to find a common language to talk to all these players about sleep and make it relevant. It was at that point that the media had announced that Manchester United had a sleep coach and joked I was tucking the players in at night and reading them bedtime stories. That’s when I realised I’m a coach about sleep and I was happy with that label.
From there I did things with the England squad for Euro 2004, British Cycling and Team Sky in 2008-2009 with the aggregation of marginal gains, London 2012 Olympics. All of those things started to emphasise the importance of sleep in a completely redefining way. As we moved from 2012 to where we are today, the real reason for talking to you, to other people, travelling around and educating is that the well-being red flags: depression, anxiety, stress, obesity etc, are at such high levels for all generations. We’re starting to realise that if we don’t understand this better in a simplistic way, that we are heading towards an addictive culture. We’re striving for consistent levels of recovery but finding it increasingly difficult to actually get.
There’s no point in talking to this generation about sleeping for 8 hours a day in one block, 365 days a year. We all have varying schedules, we live in different parts of the world and we have different circadian rhythms. It’s a constant change. That’s why I think it has had no impact on us if you’re telling people to get some good exercise, eat a healthy diet, get some social activity and sleep as many hours as you can every night. What if you’re a nurse and you work night shifts for example?
There are so many questions about those top tips we get about sleep because we just can’t apply these rigid rules. As a sleep coach in sport today, I’m doing no different with individual athletes at all levels and all sports, at the end of the day they are human beings like all of us trying to deal with our 24/7 culture.
Early in the book you mention approaching Manchester United and discovering that sleep wasn’t a performance factor? Why do you think it had been overlooked for so long, particularly at the highest levels of sporting competition?
We’re very familiar with eating well and drinking well but sleep, the third pillar, has been overlooked. This is because sleep is not a mental or physical activity and the other two pillars are more active, you can choose to eat vegetables over sugary snacks for example. Sleep has never been considered a performance factor in any shape or form, there’s no education in schools, nobody talks about it, doctors don’t train in it, it’s never been investigated to the degree of the other pillars.
Sir Alex Ferguson at the time was very open-minded as to what his team would look like in the future. He asked what would they be doing in five years’ time as a club, an organisation, what would the individual players be doing? I think the fact that the subject of sleep had never cropped up, the fact that I’d written to him directly and asked about what they do, I think that intrigued him.
One of the instigators was defender Gary Pallister who a lot of lower back issues. The physio, Dave Fevre, was intrigued and asked if the players were debilitating when they were away from the club. ‘Is there something they might be doing when they’re away from me that means I have to keep constantly treating them?’, he asked. So, I did something very simple around the product they were sleeping on at home and it started to have an impact.
I think when you’re outside of your industry like I was coming from the world of furniture sales into sport, it can suddenly give you a fresh perspective. When I mentioned that everybody’s got a chronotype, whether you’re a morning or a night-time person, people were confused about what that actually meant. If you don’t understand those very basic things about sleep and recovery and our relationships to circadian rhythms then that can start to have an impact on what you do. Very quickly Sir Alex Ferguson decided he was going to double up preseason training – so training both in the morning and the afternoon with the players sleeping in-between session for performances benefits.
Along the route, the ideas I was exploring started to have more and more of an impact with organisations than ever before. So, the real point is that because we can still go out and do what we need to do regardless of how much sleep we’ve had or didn’t have, there was no performance criteria attached to sleep.
I was actually talking to a neuroscientist recently, he’d read my book and he said I’d raised questions in his head as to why we even sleep horizontally. I fall asleep in chairs, on planes, in the backs of cars, in the office, in a tent, on a boat, I sleep in all sorts of places and in different ways and he was questioning why he slept horizontally on big, expensive mattresses. As human beings, we’re just designed to sleep anywhere.
How long will it be before the popular consensus changes on sleep? When will that paradigm shift occur?
I was recently at a big school who had got me in to talk to the pupils. I’ve worked with celebrity footballers and sports superstars, so the school thought the pupils would be more likely to listen to me. Working with the school, we suddenly realised that 70% of the pupils were night-time chronotypes and the other 30% were morning chronotypes. However, in a month’s time they’re all doing exams at 9am in the morning. The school and the parents were doing nothing to help these pupils. I also the think the fascinating thing is that as a young child you sleep polyphasically but your parents have moved into a monophasic sleeping pattern at night. So, they force the child to get into a monophasic pattern as soon as possible.
We’re so chained to this idea of sleeping monophasically, one continuous block at night and it’s hard to change that way of thinking. However, if you think about sleep, not as this time at night where you’re in the bedroom, but as periods throughout the day and week where you are mentally and physically recovering, then you’re on the right track.
I think the first step to changing the popular consensus is happening quite quickly, because that’s how we like things done in this world. There’s great potential that more and more people will get hold of the information we’re talking about today and will want to start employing those ideas tomorrow.
Just jumping on the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ in the question, if more people read my book and read this interview and really take these ideas on board then things will change pretty quickly. It’s not like going a gym and giving up after three months, it’s not about completely changing your lifestyle, it’s just simply about having that paradigm shift and getting on with it.
I know in the background there are these shifts happening, I know of GPs who are giving my book out to patients who suffer with sleeping issues. It really could benefit everyone. My book has been translated into 13 different languages and it seems to be having a real impact all around the world and whether you’re from Romania or China or the US, people seem to be having the exact same response.
I wonder how long it will take for these ideas to be ingrained in people. Will we be seeing this in schools from a very early age? We’ve already seen big companies changing how they operate with people working flexitime, looking at how offices are laid out and other things.
If you’re asking someone to do a fad diet or something like that, it won’t last, they’ll always be something else around the corner. However, if I can get everyone to read the book and it created that paradigm shift then maybe it’ll all be sorted by the end of the week!
If fitness professionals wanted to better advise their clients on sleep, where should they go to learn more, apart from your book?
There’s a lot of research going on round the world that fitness professionals can tap into it. All the major universities are exploring this. The problem is that, even with reading research, there’s still this caveat that we don’t really understand sleep well enough, because there are so many variables.
I do have to say that the best way to learn is to check out my book. I know it’s difficult to get people to make a step in the right direction, but you can’t go far wrong if you just flick through the book. It will start you off investigating all sorts of things in your life and in the lives of your clients. Exercise routines, diet, the people around you, it all might be affecting sleep.
Once you know how to spot a chronotype, you can’t change the world around you but you can do something to protect yourself, you can better advise your clients and you can make sure you get what you need out of life. I’m afraid it only comes from reading that book. The contents just didn’t happen overnight and the seven key recovery factors didn’t just crop up, it’s taken years to put together.
Apart from that, you can always call me, go on my website, look at everything we do and we’ll be happy to help.
Finally, what’s coming up next for you?
All I can say about upcoming books from me is that when you have a child in your life, there’s an inherent relationship between the parents and the children sleeping. The next book is about going from zero right through to your twenties. It’s the whole thing about parents and children growing up together and how sleep impacts on everybody. It’s likely to be called Sleep for Parents and I hope it’s going to be a real educator.
As well as that I’m going to continue to be working with organisations and people from around the world, everyone from universities, sports teams, athletes, pilots, medical professions, the list goes on. It’s fair to say that there are still so many people in need of experiencing that paradigm shift in sleep.