The Ultimate Performance Enhancement? A History of Ideas About Sleep as a Training Tool in High Performance Sport
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The recent emergence of “sleep positivity” in high performance sport, as characterized by the expansion of scientific sleep research and expertise, the growing availability of commercial sleep products, and new sleep technology companies, increasingly shapes how sleep-related problems are defined and managed in the athletic realm. Scientific evidence and common sense consistently link lengthy and sufficient sleep in athletes to enhanced performance and wellbeing. However, such optimistic views of sleep stand in contrast to the conditions of high performance, which regularly expose athletes to experiences of fatigue, overtraining, and sleep loss. I address this contradiction by offering a feminist critical history that aims to makes sense of the beliefs, values, and assumptions that position optimal personal sleep habits as “the” solution to a range of problems that arise within exhausting competitive sport systems. What if more sleep isn't really what athletes “need”? Influenced by Michel Foucault’s “history of the present” and the feminist cultural studies of sport literature, I develop a methodological framework that allows me to trace how understandings of sleep in sport have shifted across the twentieth and early twenty-first century. By drawing on a range of historical materials, including archival documents, athletic training manuals, coaching guidebooks, newspapers, textbooks, peer-reviewed journals, films, commercial advertisements, and the online materials of sleep-optimizing companies, I show that while sleep may be a biological necessity, it is also a cultural phenomenon. I explore how ideas and discourses related to sleep serve as a site of governance and examine the way that understandings of “good” sleep have often led to the moral and physical regulation of athletes. I argue that instead of assuming that the promotion of sleep in athletes’ lives is unambiguous and benevolent, it is important to examine the cultural and historical conditions that shape such prescriptions in the first place. I challenge sport scholars and sport practitioners to seriously consider the limitations of “healthy” high performance sport and bring attention to the way that the realm of competitive sport shapes broader understandings of sleep-related problems and the types of solutions that might be offered in response to them.