If you’re a football fan, then you know that the big game can be a transcendental, full-body experience. Our passion for the teams, the players, the rivalries and the competition produces the kind of wild swings of emotion normally reserved for horror movies, fireworks, or roller coasters.
To say nothing of those crazy endings! The joy/despair when the last-minute drive from a loved/hated team renews/shatters our hopes! How, after something as exciting as this, is a person expected to sleep? Since we’re sports fans who also crave a good night’s rest, we thought we’d investigate.
No matter which team you’re rooting for this year, remember that the world’s best football players benefit from top sleep science to maximize performance on the field. Here’s what you need to know to be both a die-hard fan and a world-class sleeper.
How watching a late-night sports game affects your sleep
You’ve seen the commercials. Fans huddled on the couch, watching the big game on TV, leaping to their feet in agony or ecstasy. Such responses may seem a little over the top, but it turns out humans are hard-wired for them.
The reason lies in the brain’s appropriately named “mirror neurons,” cells that allow an observer to connect to another person’s movement. Research has shown that when we see a recognizable action, such as scoring a touchdown, our mirror neurons activate and fire for exactly as long as the observed action. That powerful mental connection essentially tricks our body into thinking that we are the ones scrambling for the end zone.
In physiological terms, the excitement of scoring a touchdown could very well lead to an increased heart and respiration rate. The effect is not trivial: a recent study found that spectators’ pulses increased by 75% when they watched a hockey game on television and by 110% when watching it live—equivalent to the cardiac stress of vigorous exercise.
And the game’s impact on one’s system doesn’t end after the last play is over. Depending on the outcome, brain chemicals like neurotransmitters and hormones might make you feel great with a flood of dopamine or stressed with the release of cortisol.
Considering all that, it might seem like we put ourselves through a lot just to support a team. But Dan Wann, PhD, a psychology professor at Murray State University and an expert on fan behavior, puts it in perspective for Men’s Health: “We have a powerful need to identify with something grander than ourselves—and fandom can help satisfy that. Plus, we’re social creatures. And fandom helps bring out our need to belong. So it’s evolutionary. It’s natural.”
Why sleeping well after the big game is difficult
With the heart-tugging commercials, the star-studded halftime show, and high-stakes football, the big game always runs well into the night. And while our body is experiencing a rush of exciting emotions, it’s also supposed to be performing another critical job: preparing us for sleep.
And that’s where we can run into trouble. Remember those hormones? In addition to surges of cortisol and adrenaline, which hype us up, the bright lights of the game (in person or on TV) can delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. All of that increased activity means that our body can’t begin to relax in the usual ways.
Take cooling down, for instance. According to researchers at the University of South Australia, about an hour to 90 minutes before falling asleep, “the body starts to lose heat from its central core and that brings on increased feelings of tiredness in normal healthy adults.” That winding down is less likely to happen if we are agitated or excited in the evenings.
The second sleep challenge goes straight to our state of mind. Whether it’s a tremendous win or crushing defeat, our brain—and body—will have strong reactions. That in itself is not a sleep issue, but where we get into trouble is if we let this high-activation state linger for too long after the game.
While emotionally disconnecting might seem easier said than done, the key comes down to one word: positivity. Research shows that positive feelings, like love, care, gratitude, appreciation, compassion, or joy have the ability to calm heart rhythms, reduce cortisol, and increase DHEA, a beneficial sleep hormone.
How to get to sleep after the big game
Now let’s put our fan knowledge into an actionable game plan. The key is to set up a healthy transition to sleep, so your body can ease from excitement to relaxation. Here’s how to do that:
Since our body naturally cools down before and during sleep, we can help ourselves relax by facilitating that process. Set your thermostat a few degrees cooler as the festivities end (most experts recommend a room temperature of between 60 and 67 degrees). If you have time, take a hot bath or shower about 90 minutes before bed. Research suggests that the process of warming up and cooling down helps us relax by simulating our daily biorhythms.
Let it go
Summon positive thoughts as soon as possible after the game, especially if your team lost. Maybe read that bedtime story to your child, share a special moment with your partner, or even give that old friend—you know, the one who doesn’t watch football—a quick call. Anything except reliving the game. If you find it difficult to relax after so much excitement, try a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and releasing muscle groups throughout your body.
Switch off the TV, resist the temptation to engage in post-game commentary on social media, and avoid the urge to run the mental highlight reel in your head. You’ve already been staring at a screen for the past few hours, flooding your eyes with blue light. Too much late-night screen usage prevents your brain from secreting melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep/wake cycles. Instead of scrolling through social media, try an old-fashioned book. After all, Monday-morning quarterbacks need their sleep too.
And with that, best of luck to all sports fans—and sweet dreams!
How many people call out after the big game?
The Monday after the big game is known as “Super Sick Monday” and is one of the biggest days to skip work. According to a 2020 survey from The Workforce Institute at Kronos, more than 17 million people were expected to call in sick from work the day after the big game.
How do you stay awake during a late-night sports game?
There are a few things you can do to stay awake for the entirety of the big game. Try to get a good night’s sleep the night before and take an afternoon nap before the big game. You should also avoid sugary snacks and stick to foods that are high in protein to keep your energy up during the game.
Read our interview with football player Cyril Grayson to learn how a pro athlete prioritizes sleep.