Let's say there are two grapplers, Devlin and Kris. In the night class their instructor, Dahveed, tells them that a new spot is opening up on the competition team. Who gets it will be based on an in-house competition in two months. The competition will consist of demonstrating techniques and sparring. Devlin and Kris are extremely excited because they have been eyeing a spot on the team for a while now. Plus, the position comes with a stipend and sponsorship. Dahveed provides them with a sheet of new techniques he wants them to learn during the next two months and demonstrate at the competition.
At this moment they are equal in size, strength, skill and ability and neither Kris nor Devlin has an edge on each other. In the time they have known each other neither has been able to tap the other out. Both want to be champions so they dive with equal fervor into their preparation. Unknowingly, they adopt the same training regimen and practice an equal amount of time. Their diets are virtually the same.
However, this is where their similarities end. Devlin and Kris are two very different people in one key area. That area is rest and sleep. Devlin has always been very disciplined about going to bed early and insuring that he gets 8 hrs. of sleep. Kris is a night owl and stays up late watching TV and reading books. He usually gets 5 hrs. of sleep each night.
Who do you think would perform better at the competition?
Although anything could happen in a grappling competition I would root for Devlin. You may wonder, if (from the beginning of preparation) Devlin and Kris are equal in all areas and their training methods, length of training and eating habits are exactly the same, why is it more likely that Devlin would perform better at the competition than Kris?
According to, Your Brain: The Missing Manual, Kris is missing out on a precious benefit gained during sleep that would boost his grappling ability. That precious gift is the brain reviewing the previous day's activities and increasing Kris’s ability to perform those actions better the next time he tries them.
As we practice any activity neural pathways are created that help the brain to remember how to perform the action at a later date. Each time we perform a particular task the pathways become a stronger series of networks that can help us get the job done. This apparently happens even when we're sleeping.
So by sleeping three more hours would Kris perform just as well as Devlin?
But there's a catch to improving performance by sleeping. The ‘review process’ occurs during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. That is one of four stages of sleep we cycle through throughout the night. It is also the deepest level of sleep. If Kris does not cycle through the REM stages then he can't reap the benefits.
The author of Your Brain,' Matthew MacDonald, cites two studies, one involving rats and the other humans, that demonstrate the effectiveness of REM sleep in improving our ability to conduct tasks we perform during the day. In a study (2001), rats, that had "electrodes implanted" in their brains, were sent through a series of mazes. Their neuronal activity was "recorded." When the rats later fell into REM sleep those same neurons fired in the same way as if they were running the mazes.
Another experiment, conducted by Robert Stickgold (Harvard Medical School) in 2000, was where human subjects were asked to play Tetris (a video game of falling blocks) for 7 hours a day. Participants were observed while sleeping and awakened during their REM cycles. Many of the test subjects were indeed dreaming of playing Tetris (17 of 27). MacDonald goes on to say that in these types of studies, subjects who are prevented from going into REM sleep do not perform as well as others who are allowed REM sleep when learning "new tasks." This provides indications that the REM cycle is needed to gain the benefits of getting more sleep.
The example of Kris and Devlin is a simple mind experiment. And, yes, studies need to be conducted to see how the effect of more REM sleep would affect grapplers when they train. But preliminary evidence already exists that sleep and more specifically, REM sleep, can improve performance.
Sometimes succeeding in something boils down to small advantages. As grappling is a rough sport and taxing on the body we can only practice for so long or in so many ways. If I can gain an edge through a relaxing, deep sleep, someone please, hand me a pillow.