DA's Morning Tip
Health struggles Tyronn Lue, Steve Clifford face reveal stressful world of NBA coaching
NBA coaches league-wide aim to manage expectations, responsibility ... and their health
It’s 3 a.m., again.
You have watched the episode of “Three’s Company” where Jack and Chrissy have a misunderstanding.
You have watched the old NFL games on YouTube, including the commercials (man, did they drive some ugly cars back in the day).
You have played 7,451 hands of online Solitaire.
And sleep still avoids you, taunting you from a distance. Over here! Over here!
Everyone else in the house sleeps soundly, as they do most every night, leaving you to try and catch up. When — if — you do finally fall asleep, the morning comes rudely, quickly, and the alarms go off, and the children and spouse and pets rise. Their days begins anew. Yours is not yet over. Or, it is barely over.
This is the life of an insomniac.
It’s hard to make people who sleep well understand how difficult it is to function with little or no sleep. You operate in a fog the following day, or days. You’re awake but you can’t concentrate on anything for very long. The deprivation stabs at your reserves of energy; exercise is one of the first victims of regular sleeplessness. To try and wake yourself up to the point of productivity, you slam coffee, energy drinks, anything with sugar, everything with sugar. It should not surprise that a regular diet of coffee, energy drinks and sugar-laden foods is not ideal for one’s metabolism.
Tired people are cranky.
Tired people make mistakes.
Tired people are … well, me.
It doesn’t happen every night, or every week, or every month. But it happens, way too regularly. I inherited a light sleeping pattern from my pops, so everything tends to wake me up — a car speeding down a nearby street, two people talking as they walk up the block. A dog. A bird. Wind. Everything wakes me up.
And, in my job, I travel a lot. That doesn’t help. Bed and pillow quality on the road is, shall we say, sporadic. (Then there’s the occasional kegger and/or mix tape release party down the hall.)
Add to this stew the normal 3 a.m. terrors: your family, job, money, future, death. Living in our current, uh, political atmosphere. You know it’s going to be one of those nights when all those thoughts rush by as if on the Acela to New York, and you can’t stop processing them. Massaging them. Contemplating them. Closing eyes, counting to 50 and back … nothing works.
Time for Jack and Chrissy.
And I have about one-millionth of the stress that an NBA coach has, every day.
The workload they have, even for those with great assistant coaches and video staff, is unending. They have to make a hundred decisions every day: when to practice, and how long. How to try and guard LeBron James or Kevin Durant or James Harden (and with whom). Patting one guy on the back while kicking another in the behind. Working with the general manager (if they’re lucky and don’t have a bad relationship with their boss). Media demands in the morning, afternoon and night. Handling irate agents who want more playing time and shots for their clients; looking at their team and their opponents on tape, over and over and over.
Then there’s the games. And the families.
They get paid a lot of money, yes. They also get fired way more frequently than Joe in accounting or Lisa in Human Resources. And that intense pressure to win or else, to find a way to beat LeBron or Durant or Harden, has to go somewhere. Sometimes, it builds and then blows.
“We’re all told what to do, but we don’t do it,” one coach said Sunday. “We’re all told we have to eat healthy, we have to exercise and we have to get our sleep. All of us. Every coach. This is not like, ‘oh, wow, I never thought of that.’ But it’s hard to do it.”
In December, Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford took a leave of absence to deal with debilitating headaches — which, he found out after extensive testing, were being caused by sleep deprivation. And last week, Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue stepped back from coaching what is still, along with the Golden State Warriors, the league’s most talked about team, after having chest pains and other physical problems — which also included lack of sleep.
“I ain’t slept in days,” Lue said back in November, after the Cavaliers had stumbled to a 3-5 start.
Clifford returned to work in Charlotte in January after missing 21 games. Lue is scheduled to return to the Cavs this week after taking a week off to work with doctors on a new regimen.
“What I’ve been able to do is retrain my body to sleep more,” Clifford said by phone Sunday. “You get into these stretches with your work where it’s not a regular sleep, you don’t get into a normal routine. And you get used to not sleeping. For me, basically, as I got older, my body at 56 is just not going to accept not sleeping as it did at, say, 46.”
Clifford had been dealing with his physical problems for two years before he took a seat. The headaches led to losing sleep, which led to more headaches. His doctors told him that he was running the risk of developing chronic migraines — and anyone who’s had one of those, much less a dozen, knows that’s a road down which one does not want to go.
“As the headaches got worse, I just used stronger medication,” Clifford said. “And what you learn with headaches is that the medication is like a band aid. You’re not taking care of the headaches. A year ago they made me do an MRI to make sure there was nothing there, and it wasn’t. But this year it got to the point where it was just so difficult to function during the day he said ‘look, you’re going to have to take some time off here.’ ”
The tipping point for Clifford came in early December.
“We had a game with Orlando here and one of my assistants, Pat Delaney, was here,” Clifford said. “I had been here for about an hour and the headache was so bad I called him in and said ‘look, you’re going to have to do this shootaround.’ I went to drive home and I was shaking. It was so bad I couldn’t drive. I had to walk home.”
For Clifford, the task was simple: he didn’t have to change how he did his job; he had to change the way he lived.
He grew up around grinders. He was hired by Jeff Van Gundy in New York as an assistant in 2001, joining a staff that included Tom Thibodeau, Don Chaney and Kevin O’Neill. Chaney had already been a coach and was NBA Coach of the Year in 1990. The other three assistants all also became coaches. They all got in early and stayed late. But Clifford had to change.
“I set an alarm every morning, and when I wake up I don’t get out of bed until the alarm goes off,” Clifford said. “It’s helped me. I sleep now, easily, six hours a lot, six and a half, whatever. At this level it’s made an incredible difference in how I feel. I don’t get as tired, especially in the afternoons, which had become more of a problem for me the last couple of years. For the games, I’m not as tired. I’m better later in the day.”
Sleep has been a prime topic for years. The NBA started the regular season two weeks early to eliminate all but a handful of the dreaded four-games-in-five-nights that was a staple of schedules for decades — which in turn would help players be better rested and less susceptible to injury. The science of the impact of the schedule is so on-point that correctly predicting “schedule losses” because of expected fatigue has become almost commonplace.
Almost every NBA team has a performance staff that works nonstop on finding ways to maximize production.
Always thinking about tomorrow (next game, rotations, lineup changes, injuries, etc). It’s a very hard way to live. … I don’t think people have any idea how stressful these jobs are. You are judged daily.”
Anonymous NBA coach, on the rigors of the job
Teams have implemented all manner of changes during the past few years to help their players get more and better sleep. They’ve utilized sleep-study experts to minimize disruptions in travel and given their players monitors to wear on their wrists to measure the quality of their sleep. Potent elixirs that promise more restful sleep come on the market every year.
The Houston Rockets and other teams have done away with most shootarounds on the road, opting for pregame walkthroughs a couple of hours before tipoff so their players can sleep in after arriving in a new city. Other teams have done the same at home, pushing practice times back the day after home games so their players don’t have to be in at 8 a.m. after logging 30-plus minutes the night before.
Some teams have tried to stay on their regular time zone clocks, meaning a West coast team coming East would let its players stay out late after arriving rather than have them get to bed early, so they could stay in their natural rhythm as they would have at home.
Many teams now stay where they are after road games, rather than get on planes for late-night charters that don’t arrive in the next city until 2 or 3 a.m. local time. This is especially helpful for teams that lose an hour or two going West to East.
But despite all those innovations and tinkering, coaches like Clifford and Lue still are struggling to get enough rest, exacerbating pre-existing conditions. Some players take losses to heart, to be sure. But coaches wear them like a woolen coat. Numerous coaches have spoken of walking the streets in their home cities after especially grueling losses, replaying key moments repeatedly in their minds.
If there’s anything I’ve learned, the two things are listen to your body and do what the doctors tell you to do. It sounds simple, but for me it’s worked well.”
Hornets coach Steve Clifford
To get some idea of how the grind of a season impacts NBA head coaches, I surveyed all of them last week, excluding Cleveland’s interim coach, Larry Drew (his sleep pattern likely not being what it was before Lue announced his sabbatical), contacting them either directly or through their team’s public relations staffs. Of the 29 contacted, 19, including Clifford, had responded as of Monday morning.
Coaches got three questions:
1. How much sleep do you get per night?
2. Is it enough?
3. If not, how does it affect you and what are you trying to do to get more?
(And, for obvious reasons, we won’t be quoting the respondents by name.)
The gamut ran from three hours of sleep per night to as much as eight. Most coaches said they get somewhere around six hours a night.
“I’d get more if we won,” one coach cracked. “[Rockets coach Mike] D’Antoni probably sleeps well.”
One coach who said he gets between seven and eight hours augments that with daily naps, and tries to eliminate the bane of everyone who lives the NBA life – late-night meals and booze.
“I get plenty,” said another coach who says he gets eight hours. “The tough thing for me is when we fly late at night and get in at 3 a.m. That jacks me up for a day or two.”
One coach who gets six hours on average per night said he’s “tired and fatigued all the time.” He would love to get more sleep, but it’s almost impossible. He tries to compensate by taking naps on game days for half an hour up to 45 minutes.
But the familiarity of the grind almost works against a normal lifestyle.
“If I’m able to get eight hours of sleep, I’m almost sore the next day,” another coach said. “I feel kind of stiff. It’s weird. Obviously the answer to something like this is more sleep. Ultimately I just try to spend as much time with my family as I can. If I can drive (my kids) to school in the morning that’s therapy itself. I know I need the sleep, but it’s like being a player. It’s hard going through 82 games, but you have to train yourself. The thing I’ve slacked on is the workouts. I try to get in the gym more. If I can get 30-45 minutes a day, five days a week, I feel really good.”
Several coaches mentioned regular exercise as vital. One coach has benefitted from incorporating meditation into his daily routine. Another is seeing a sleep therapist.
“I try to eat as healthy as I can and get away from my job and get on the court and play pick-up games,” another coach said. “I try to do that three times a week. When I do that three times or four times a week, I don’t sleep better, but my body feels worse.”
But many still struggle to decompress. Moving from assistant coach to coach, as so many have noted in the past, is among the most difficult 12 inches anyone has to navigate.
“I really average about 4 to 5 hours a night,” one texted. “I’ve always had trouble sleeping. Very difficult to turn your mind off. Always thinking about tomorrow (next game, rotations, lineup changes, injuries, etc). It’s a very hard way to live. I’m not a pill taker so I don’t take any kind of medication … I don’t think people have any idea how stressful these jobs are. You are judged daily.”
One veteran coach who gets between six and seven hours of sleep nightly feels the difference when he doesn’t.
“If I don’t get six I struggle,” he said. “Light headed and irritable. When I don’t sleep I don’t eat right. The main thing I need is a workout. If I work out I sleep better and have a good, healthy appetite. In the past year I have made myself sleep, work out and eat better.”
Location also matters.
“I definitely sleep better on the West coast, because I love to watch all the late games,” another coach said. “Sleep hours depend on so many things: travel, time zone changes, game nights, non-game nights. It would be impossible to be consistent and therein is the problem. There are nights I get 5-6 hours, and others where I get 7-8. It’s tough to nap, but if I can get 45 minutes on a game day, that helps. Again, knowing I will be up to 1 a.m. working on postgame edits (is difficult). I’m trying to go to bed earlier when (the) opportunity is presented and take short naps in the afternoons. It’s tough when so many things are going through your mind.”
But, like their players, most coaches are Type As, Alpha males. They try to push through and adapt.
“Now, I can sleep anywhere,” one coach said. “I’m going in now; we’ve got practice at noon. If I go home and take a nap, that usually would mess me up at night. Now, I can sleep anywhere. We got on the plane and I said ‘I have to close my eyes.’ It was a short flight, but I did it.”
Clifford coached Lue when the latter played in Houston and Orlando. He spoke with Lue last week and the Cavs’ coach said he was already feeling better. But Clifford knows that has to be followed up by changing habits, permanently.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned, the two things are listen to your body and do what the doctors tell you to do,” Clifford said. “It sounds simple, but for me it’s worked well.”
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