Imagine you are at your child's game and you see them make a perfect pass to a teammate in a tight space. You wonder how they had the vision to make such an incredible play.
Or they anticipate a hit in a baseball or softball game, diving seemingly before the ball was in play to make an incredible catch.
How do some athletes do this, while others seem to react slowly or miss obvious opportunities that you can see from the stands?
There is a growing field of research being done on what creates great decision makers in all sports. And one of the more fascinating connections is the link between getting enough sleep and making smarter decisions in athletics.
While there is still plenty of debate on whether athletes who are seen as 'playmakers', those who seemingly can see one step ahead of everyone else, are blessed with better instincts or are developed through coaching, one thing is certain.
All athletes make better decisions when they are mentally fresh.
WHAT PLAYMAKERS SEE
Another thing sports scientists have conclusively found is that playmakers are reading all kinds of subtle visual cues on their surroundings better than the average player.
They see where everyone is going.
They pick up on small shifts in movement or body position that signal an opponent's intentions.
In short, their advantage comes from picking up on all the little things in their environment better than everyone else.
They then use this advanced knowledge to anticipate and react faster than others, almost like they can see a few seconds into the future. This allows them to make the right decision at the right time on a regular basis. This is a skill that coaches and scouts absolutely love to see, because it is a key factor in becoming an elite player.
"Players at the elite level think the game fast, faster than their peers," says Mike Sullivan, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Backing up Coach Sullivan's belief, in dozens of studies on the differences between amateur and elite players in a wide range of sports, the ability to quickly process cues from your surroundings is the biggest difference in their performance.
HOW SLEEP PLAYS A ROLE IN PROCESSING SPEED
Any time we have a big test in school, or any other task that requires expending lots of mental energy, we instinctively know that getting a good night's sleep can help us to perform better the next day.
Yet we don't consider athletic performance to be a thinking activity.
“If one considers the challenges that elite sports performance presents to the brain, it is difficult to think of any other human activity that puts more demands on the brain than athletics,” says Dr Vincent Walsh, Director of the Applied Cognitive Neuroscience research group at University College London.
Consider the hundreds or thousands of decisions a player has to make within a single game. Which way to go, when to accelerate, whether to pass or shoot, running specific plays, among many others. There is A LOT of thinking in athletics, and a fresh mind processes these decisions much faster.
The best way to consistently keep your mind fresh is to get enough sleep, 8-10 hours per night for athletes in their growing years.
One study showed that athletes who do not sleep at all the night have an average of 300% slower reaction times than those who get 8 hours.
Another found shooting and passing accuracy improved in athletes who slept 8-10 hours per night for 7 weeks straight by 9% compared to those getting less than 8 hours.
Other studies show reduced mental mistakes made by athletes who sleep well.
Sam Ramsden, Director of Player Health and Performance for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, probably said it best:
"We're teaching our players: Sleep is a weapon."