Z-Z-Z Ball: Gophers baseball and the science of sleep - My29 WFTC Minneapolis-St. Paul

Z-Z-Z Ball: Gophers baseball and the science of sleep

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Everyone has something they'd like to improve on -- their job performance or sporting skills, but Jeff Baillon found one thing anyone can do to make an immediate difference.

There's no requirement of liking baseball in order to appreciate what goes on when the Gophers continue their experiment. Strip away the ambiance, the banter, the brats -- and step into one man's research lab.

Troy Larson is a scientist who plays center field.

"I want to give to the people doing this to generally improve their quality of life," Larson said. "It's not always about baseball."

The future doctor is using his last season with the Gophers to conduct an experiment, handing out surveys to his lab rats in order to get a read on their readiness to play on any given day. Larson intends to determine whether players can up their edge by upping their sleep.

"What we know is that good sleep helps improve human reaction time," explained Dr. Mike Howell, with the University of Minnesota's Sleep Center. "Sudden, split-second decisions are improved if you sleep well."

It's hard to find anything more sudden than a 90-mph fastball. Experts who study such things estimate that a batter has about a quarter of a second to decide whether or not to swing. If he or she is seven milliseconds too fast or too slow, the ball will foul off instead of making direct contact.

Before the season began, Howell spoke with the Gopher team about how better sleep might translate into better play.

"We know that college students, in general, are terrible sleepers," Howell said.

Larson took that chat to heart.

"It's pretty obvious that my sleep habits my first four years in college were not as good as they are now," he said.

He started by going to bed earlier.

"I've consciously tried to fall asleep at least eight hours," he said.

Soon, other players started paying more attention to their own sleep habits as well. On game days, players rate their level of sleepiness by answering questions on Larson's survey. Stats on how they react to each pitch are recorded.

This isn't the first study to examine sleep and athletic performance. Stanford University looked into how an extra two hours of snooze time affected basketball players.

"What they found is: They shoot free-throws better, three-pointers better," Howell said. "They have a quicker dash to the baseline. Not only that, but they are better teammates and they win more games."

Larson and Howell still need to analyze all the data from their study, but it certainly seems that a rested Gopher team is a better one. In fact, they're near the top of the Big 10 standings and Larson told FOX 9 News he has definitely seen more success at the plate since he started focusing on sleep.

Experts say anyone who wakes up with an alarm clock in the morning is sleep deprived and therefore won't be as sharp as they could be, regardless of what they set out to do. Yet, Howell says a nap can help those who simply can't score an 8-hour slumber.

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