Saturday, January 10, 2009

Will Jet Lag Affect this Weekend’s NFL Playoffs?

A story takes an interesting look at this weekend’s NFL playoff games. West Coast teams Arizona and San Diego both must travel to the East Coast to play. Will jet lag affect their performance? Results from this season suggest it might.

Arizona finished 9-7 to win the NFC West Division. But the Cardinals were 0-5 in games on the East Coast. San Diego finished 8-8 to win the AFC West Division. They faired a little better on the East Coast, going 1- 3. The Chargers kept their playoff hopes alive by flying east to beat Tampa Bay 41-24 on Dec. 21.

Why would jet lag affect sports teams? Quickly crossing time zones disrupts the timing of your body clock. This can upset your sleep patterns and your daytime alertness.

It’s harder to adjust when you fly from west to east. You have to convince your body to go to sleep at night, and to become alert in the morning, hours earlier than normal. This is bad news for the Cardinals and Chargers.

Playing in the Pacific
time zone, the Chargers face a three-hour change when flying to the East Coast. Until November Arizona was also three hours behind Eastern Daylight Time since the state does not observe daylight saving time. But until March the state is now on Mountain Standard Time, a two-hour difference.

A study of more than 24,000 Major League Baseball games confirmed a jet-lag trend in sports. Teams with a three-hour time-zone advantage won 60 percent of the time. Teams with only a one-or-two-hour advantage won about 52 percent of the time.

So does the East-Coast advantage make the Panthers and Steelers a lock for this weekend’s games? Not so fast. The Cardinals will play their game at 8:15 p.m. EST. This may give them a slight edge.

Research suggests that athletic performance may peak in the late afternoon. Performance may decline at night as sleepiness increases.

A 1997 study in the journal Sleep analyzed Monday Night Football games from 1970 to 1994. It looked at every one of the games that had a West Coast team playing an East Coast team.

Each of these games began around 9 p.m. Eastern time. This means that games on the West Coast began at 6 p.m. Pacific time. In games played on the East Coast, the West Coast teams played at a 6 p.m. “body-clock time.”

The study found an advantage for the West Coast teams. They won about 64 percent of the games by an average of 14.7 points per game. They even won about 56 percent of the games played on the East Coast. Results remained significant even after controlling for home-field advantage and point spread.

So the “6 p.m.-alert” Cardinals will have a clear advantage over the “8 p.m.-sleepy” Panthers? Well, not quite.

Today teams have a better understanding of jet lag’s effect on performance. It’s common for them to arrive at the host city a couple days early. This gives players time to adjust to the new time zone. In effect the Cardinals may shift their body clocks closer to the East Coast time.

So how will it all pan out? Maybe each game will simply be won by the best team.

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