by Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D.

Adequate rest is required for optimal performance, whether in the office or on the basketball court. So it makes sense that a recent study in the journal Sleep Health examined the effects of late-night tweeting on NBA players’ performance the next day. 

Researchers from Stony Brook University led by Dr. Jason J. Jones examined the timestamps of over 37,000 tweets from 112 players and their performance in games the following day. Tweets were considered “late night” if they were sent between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. The researchers weren’t interested in late-night tweeting per se, but were using it as an indicator of getting less sleep. 

Performance variables included points scored, shooting percentage, rebounds, turnovers, and fouls. Only games taking place in the player’s normal time zone were included (e.g., East Coast teams playing on the East Coast) to avoid the confound of jet lag. 

Analyses revealed that late-night tweeting was associated with fewer points scored, a lower shooting percentage, and fewer rebounds; however, players also had fewer fouls and turnovers following late-night tweets. Results were not significantly different for home versus away games. While these effects were statistically significant, they were relatively small (e.g., an average decrease in 1.14 points scored per game). 

Importantly, players also tended to have less playing time after late-night tweeting—an average of 2 minutes per game, or about 8 percent less time. This finding helps explain the positive effect of tweeting on fouls and turnovers and the negative effect on points scored and rebounds, since there was less time for all these things to happen. 

Shooting percentage, however, doesn’t depend on minutes played or number of shots taken, so having less game time can’t explain the average reduction in shooting percentage of 1.7 percent. That’s obviously not a whopping effect, although it could mean the difference in a close game between hitting versus missing a potential game-winning shot. The effect would be more pronounced the greater the number of players on a team who are awake in the middle of the night. 

The researchers explain the reduced shooting performance as a predictable effect of sleep deprivation. As they note, sending a tweet is incompatible with being asleep, unless the player is using an automated social media account or has a proxy send tweets late at night. However, these factors would make it harder to explain the study’s findings, which are consistent with the effects of sleep deprivation.  

Why would late-night tweeting have an effect on time played? The researchers suggest that coaches might be attuned to “subtle indicators of poor performance among those who have stayed up late the night before a game” (e.g., a low-energy performance in warm-ups) and be inclined to take them out of the game sooner. 

Strengths of the study include its focus on real-world job performance, as opposed to carefully contrived laboratory measures like sustained vigilance. It also was conducted among a population that arguably would be difficult to recruit as research participants, using instead publicly available social media data. Accordingly, it was able to demonstrate the apparent negative effects of sleep loss even among elite athletes.

On the other hand, the authors acknowledge that we can’t know whether the decreases in performance were directly tied to being awake in the middle of the night, since some other variable (e.g., life stress) could account for the effects on both tweeting and performance.

While more research is needed, this study is an intriguing step both in its methodology and its findings and points to future possibilities in this area. 

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