New study finds jet lag puts Celtics at a disadvantage in NBA finals

Boston Celtics likely impacted negatively, as eastward jet lag associated with 6% decrease in home team winning percentage in 2022.

A new study into jet lag and its impact on NBA performance has found that the Boston Celtics may have a distinct disadvantage in the 2022 NBA Finals.

The study, “Eastward Jet Lag is Associated with Impaired Performance and Game Outcome in the National Basketball Association,” was published on June 16 in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.

Expressed as a percentage, the authors write, “eastward jet lag was associated with a 6.03% decrease in home team winning percentage, the equivalent of 2.47 fewer home wins over a full NBA regular season.”

“This disadvantage increased as the magnitude of eastward jet lag increased, to the point where home teams playing with 2 hours of eastward jet lag had a negative points differential of almost three points, despite the robust and well-documented advantages typically associated with playing at home (e.g., home crowds, venue familiarity and opponent travel).”

Jet lag mainly affects teams that travel eastwards

The authors of the study say the effects of jet lag are significant, and suggest that the NBA and other sports leagues should take this into account when scheduling games, especially where teams have to travel long distances over a number of time zones in a short time period. 

Some teams are disproportionately affected based on their geographical location, said lead author Elise Facer-Childs, a professor at Monash University.

This issue is of “particular concern to teams located on the east coast who have to travel back to play home games without adequate recovery time,” she said.

Eastward travel – where the destination time is later than the origin time – requires the athlete to shorten their day, which is known as a “phase advance.”

During a phase advance, athletes often struggle to fall asleep at an earlier bedtime.

This leads to sleep loss, which in turn can lead to impaired physiological performance and motivation the next day, Facer-Childs explains.

A data set of 11,481 games over ten years

The researchers looked at data from 10 seasons of NBA games from 2011 to 2021, amounting to 11,481 games in total.

They found that eastward (but not westward) jet lag was associated with impaired performance for home (but not away) teams.

Specifically, home teams that traveled eastward and experienced jet lag (compared to home teams with no jet lag) had a 6% reduced chance of winning.

And as the magnitude of the eastward jet lag increased, so too did the detrimental impact on home team performance.

In other words, the effect was stronger when teams traveled across three time zones (for example from San Francisco back to Boston) than when they crossed only one or two time zones.

How to reduce the effects of jet lag on athletes

Schedulers could mitigate these effects by compensating eastward travel with increased recovery time to allow athletes to re-synchronise to the new time zone, Professor Facer-Childs said.

In fact, her team’s research shows that when eastward travel was followed by an adequate recovery window, teams performed similarly to when they did not travel at all. 

“Allowing time for the circadian system to realign naturally to the destination’s light-dark cycle could, therefore, mitigate the observed eastward travel disadvantage,” she said.

But if schedules cannot be altered to ensure a level playing field, then team doctors and sleep specialists can use other techniques to lessen the effects.

These include specifically-timed light exposure and avoidance routines, as well as melatonin supplementation via tablets.

Other techniques include maintaining a structured schedule while on the road, for example in terms of transportation, meal timings, and practice times.

Private jets can only do so much

Although private jets can make cross-country flights less cumbersome for players, they do not protect against circadian disruption caused by crossing multiple time zones.

That is especially true when teams are not given enough time to adapt to the new environment, which tales about one day per hour of time difference.

Especially relevant to the current NBA Finals

The research may have implications for the NBA Finals currently underway between the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics. 

In this particular case, Professor Facer-Childs said, the Celtics might benefit from some of the “chronobiology-informed strategies” discussed above, which are aimed at reducing the effects of jet lag.

She added that this study has implications for all sporting teams that need to travel across time zones to attend games.

Image: via DepositPhotos

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