Professional Athletes and Mental Health

Last summer, Royce White, an aspiring professional basketball player, spoke candidly about his anxiety disorder before the National Basketball Association Draft. Most NBA teams recognized his talent but were hesitant to risk a draft pick on a player who admitted to, among other things, a fear of flying. The Houston Rockets took a chance, selecting White in the first round with the 16th overall pick.

We are more than two months into the NBA season and White hasn’t played a game. Earlier this week the Rockets announced they had suspended White for “refusing to provide services as required by his contract.”

White has said the Rockets are ignoring the advice of mental health professionals and that he won’t go to work until the experts, and not the Rockets, have final say on his medical decisions. It is an unfortunate situation but one that could spur positive changes in the way professional sports leagues deal with mental health issues.

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Need a basketball edge? Sleep on it

Professional athletes are creatures of habit, especially on
game days. From the timing of their pre-game meals to how they arrive at the
stadium to the kind of music they listen to in the locker room, they usually
stick to a routine. This makes it all the more surprising that several NBA
teams are dropping a nearly 40-year-old game-day tradition.

The Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail
Blazers, and Denver Nuggets have done
away with the morning shoot-around
, a practice that has been around since
1971. Other teams are also experimenting without it, though they have yet to get
rid of it completely.

If there’s one man responsible for this change, it’s Charles
Czeisler, known around the league as “the Sleep Doctor.” Czeisler recommends
that players sleep at least eight hours a night, saying that performance will
be reduced with insufficient rest. Given that players don’t usually get to sleep
before 2 a.m. after a game, by that logic a 9 a.m. shoot-around the following
morning clearly doesn’t allow for enough sleep.

The Dana Guide to
Brain Health notes
that sleep “serves a vital purpose for the brain.” Reviewing
material early in the morning may not be all that beneficial if players were up
late the night before. If players are well-rested, however, they are more
likely to benefit from new information since “sleep not only consolidates new
learning but may even improve it.”

Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who eliminated morning
shoot-arounds before the start of this season, said his team’s practices have
been better this year. Boston is a conference-best 22-5 this season.

It’s hard to believe it took NBA teams this long to realize
that performance would improve if players got a sufficient amount of sleep. Then
again, with routines being so integral to professional sports, players, and
coaches are often too stubborn to deviate from a schedule once it is

But as the Dana Guide says, “One important function of sleep
is to maintain our capacity to keep our body and brain temperature within a
narrow range in order to face the challenges of the day.” Good luck guarding
LeBron James on a bad night’s sleep.

—Andrew Kahn

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