The number of body rejuvenation techniques available these days is astounding, and in the high-stakes world of the NFL, a slight edge can make all the difference.
It’s no surprise, then, that players look to maximize recovery by equipping themselves with the latest technology. Through the years, Cardinals strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris has seen it all.
“We’re gimmick-oriented, gadget-oriented, newest-, latest-, greatest-, what’s-coolest, what’s-the-latest-trend-on-Instagram-Twitter-Snapchat-Facebook,” Morris said. “We’re into that. If it’s more expensive, it must be better. But all those things over time lose their effectiveness.”
Morris isn’t anti-technology, explaining that the team has a pair of products so cutting edge that he couldn’t reveal them for this article. But he’s much more concerned that the players get a heaping dose of something else -- something they have been using since birth with no price tag attached.
“Sometimes,” Morris said, “the simplest answers are the best for a complicated issue.”
It seems funny to consider, but snoozing for the requisite amount of time – generally around eight hours – does wonders for a body. New coach Steve Wilks has pushed the Cardinals hard during training camp, with outdoor practices and an uptick in physicality, but he’s also been mindful of their recovery.
“Sleep is definitely a thing that they need, and that’s how I tried to set the schedule up,” Wilks said. “From a standpoint of having the recovery time during the day, a good meeting time at night, but being able to get out of there early to get a good night sleep.”
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is on a Hall of Fame path because of supreme natural talent and a terrific work ethic, but he realizes that winding down is also an important part of the equation. Fitzgerald said he has “never really been a late night person,” and keeps a close eye on his sleep schedule, especially at this stage in his career.
“I’m old, dude,” said Fitzgerald, who will be 35 later this month. “I need to sleep. I’m usually closing my eyes around 9:30 and wake up at 6. I definitely get my rest.”
The positive effects of a full night’s sleep are sometimes harder to ingrain in young players. When rookie Christian Kirk was in high school, he could subsist on three to four hours of sleep. The wide receiver’s mentality changed after meeting the sports science team at Texas A&M, and he has stayed ever mindful of recovery while transitioning to the NFL.
Kirk, the Cardinals’ second-round pick, wears a WHOOP fitness band that tracks his sleep patterns each night.
“You can do cold tubs and massages and stretch, but if you do all that and go home and get four hours of sleep, you’re going to feel just as bad as you did before,” said Kirk, whose normal routine puts him asleep by 9 p.m. and up by 5 or 5:30 a.m. “A guy who maybe does less stretching and rolling but goes home and gets nine hours of sleep, you’re going to wake up the next day feeling great. It gives your body a fresh start.”
There are mental advantages in addition to the physical benefits. In Matthew Walker’s bestselling book Why We Sleep, he details the uptick in cognitive functioning after giving the brain the ability to refresh. The mental aspect is important in the NFL, where 11 players on the field must work in concert as one.
“Think about when you’re tired,” Morris said. “You’re not motivated. You don’t learn that much. You can’t retain things.”
The Cardinals also put a heavy emphasis on the quality of the sleep. Morris instructs the players to make their room completely dark and devoid of any distractions.
“Once the eyes sense light, melatonin gets affected, and melatonin regulates the sleep/wake cycle through our circadian rhythms,” Morris said. “We teach them to close the curtains, put a towel over the light, turn off the digital clock and get it out of the room. All electronic devices, not only do they emit blue light, but they also emit low-level noise, and that all affects how we sleep. In other words, sleep like the cavemen did. Besides being eaten by dinosaurs, they were healthy.”
Kirk tries to avoid television and light-up screens 30 minutes prior to his bedtime. He will sometimes use a meditation app called ‘Headspace’ to get in the right frame of mind as he dozes off.
“It helps your body shut down,” Kirk said.
NFL players are pulled in myriad directions during the season, and will search for any advantage to handle those rigors. While they can afford the best recovery methods money can buy, Morris preaches the three basics: hydration, nutrition and sleep.
“You’re never going to go on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat and hear somebody say this: ‘I feel (expletive) great because I slept for eight hours, I ate great and I’m well hydrated,’” Morris said. “But how simple is that?”
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders during the first half of the preseason opener against the Chargers