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He has been dubbed as the man who taught Cristiano Ronaldo how to sleep, but in truth Nick Littlehales’ influence on football and sport in general spans further than the Real Madrid star.

He is the world’s leading sports sleep coach and his work over the past two decades has been nothing short of transformative.

At the top end of football every club and player is looking for marginal gains, that small difference that can give them the edge over an opponent.

Few would suspect sleep would be an untapped area but, as Littlehales explains, it is a subject people know remarkably little about.

“It is pretty much zero,” he says, summing up people’s knowledge when it comes to sleeping.

“There is a personal chronotype that everybody has got. They used to call us ‘owls' or ‘larks' in our grandparents’ time.

“But now they know with technology it is a genetic twist. So, there is a reason why somebody is a morning-type person and a night-time person.

“And in clubs, if you’ve got a morning-type coach everything is morning-type orientated.

“Whereas, a lot of research I’ve been doing recently says that it is more like a 70/30 split to PM-ers versus AM-ers.

“So it might be a little bit of a marginal gain, but understanding your chronotype and the circadian rhythm of the day can help.”

Such research from Littlehales is changing the way clubs work with players.

Say for example, you have a squad of ‘PM-ers’, you may look to tailor sessions to being more intense in the afternoon.

Or, if you do run a morning meeting, then you may look to increase the visual analysis to ensure players have taken information on board.

During his time as a sleep coach, Littlehales has worked with some of the top clubs from around the world.

Manchester City and Real Madrid have most recently called upon his services, and he also works with a wide range of Premier League and Championship clubs.

He has branched out to into NBA, NHL and Olympic sports, as well as working with British Cycling, and the England cricket and rugby teams.

However, it was back in 1998 that he got his first break when he contacted Manchester United.

“ I was having a little bit of a mid-life crisis and change of job,” Littlehales says.

“I just wondered whether sport was doing anything that I was not exposed to.

“It just happened to be Manchester United was the local club. I wrote to Alex Ferguson, and I think pretty much if it was any other manager the letter would have gone in the bin or wouldn’t have even got past the door.

“But he was very open-minded to the extent of: ‘If you don’t know about something maybe you should.'”

Littlehales’ work proved to be an instant success as he helped solve back problems for defender Gary Pallister by deducing he was sleeping on the wrong type of mattress.

Before long word was spreading about the mysterious sleep specialist working at Old Trafford.

“I became the sleep coach by default,” he says.

“Slowly but surely the media [found out]. Manchester United have got a coach…talking about sleep…sleep coach. 18 years later here I am.”

Littlehales’ views on sleep are certainly radical compared with the accepted wisdom of our age.

For starters he is openly against trying to get eight hours sleep.

“To sleep for eight hours? No wonder you get hot, no wonder you get disturbed by thoughts, no wonder you have to get up and go to the toilet.

“Can you last eight hours without going for a wee? It is no wonder it is a struggle to keep comfortable on a flat surface for eight hours.”

And don’t get him started on the nap. In fact, don’t even call it a nap.

“It’s not a nap,” Littlehales says.

“It’s not for old people watching the TV. It’s not for snoozers and losers. It’s a way to sleep less, to improve your recovery from it.

“Don’t waste valuable time doing it, but zone out at the right time doing it and you can get a real handle on it.”

Littlehales wants his clients, such as Ronaldo, to aim for four to five 90-minute sleep cycles, just like people did before the invention of the light bulb.

“Before artificial lighting came along in the 1700s, we always slept shorter periods, and more often,” he says.

“Shorter at night, midday and early evening with little short breaks.

“That is how we used to do it. So for everyone who wakes up at three in the morning, stop worrying about it. It’s natural.”

Bringing these ideas to the modern world is now having a great impact on football as clubs look to get the most out of their players.

Littlehales’ aim is to profile the player, both mentally and physically, before giving a programme to suit them.

They must tell him everything, which is why confidentially is an absolute must with all his clients.

This is a man who must know everything about what a player does from when he gets up, to when his head rests on the pillow a night.

For that reason, it is hard to think of a man with more secrets in football.

“They have got their own personal lives,” he says. “Their sport and these very demanding schedules, which will continue to be like that.

“So what I do for somebody is completely profile them in every way. So their physical profile, their mental profile, everything they get up to every day.

“I find a way for them to get from A to B using a mental and physical recovery approach.

“It is not like most people would consider sleep, which they take for granted. It is not a performance criteria.

“But for a lot of young athletes I work with there is such a demand on their time that insomnia, anxiety, stress and all those are pretty high in the world of sport.”

Naturally, time has changed Littlehales role and work – “even when I first fell into the world of sport I didn’t have a phone” – but it has also impacted his clients.

Originally, it was football’s biggest clubs looking to draft in his services to give them that edge. Now, those lower down the food chain are sitting up and taking notice.

“I have been working a lot more with Championship and lower league clubs,” he reveals.

“Before, they wouldn’t have been able to convince the chairman to give me a few pounds to come in and start the process. But now they can find a budget for it.

“Where would it go? Will it actually do them any good? But I think now, for instance, I did more Championship clubs last year than I did Premier League clubs like Bet365.”

One example he gives is a penalty shoot-out in a night-match.

Once the best penalty-takers have been used, the manager may have to choose between two players of similar ability from the spot.

If he knows that one is an AM-er, and the other a PM-er (more alert at night), he can have confidence that the latter is more likely to have a clearer head, positive approach and being physically spot-on when it comes to putting the ball in the net.

A marginal gain, but as he says: “Managers are starting to make decisions based on this information.”

So it would appear clubs from all over the world want to learn from Littlehales’ methods.

And, given what we know, they may well sleep a little easier – even if it is not for eight hours – by having him on their payroll.

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