Have you ever wondered what Cristiano Ronaldo dreams of? No, me neither. But this rather flippant opening question is one that likely brought to the fore a new boom in mental wellbeing in football around seven years ago.
It was then that Ronaldo was revealed to have employed a sleep coach to add to his routine and extend his glittering career beyond his then already legendary spell at Real Madrid.
But the roots of sleep, physical and mental recovery and stress management in athletes go much further back to the 1990s, when sports industry executive Nick Littlehales started working with Manchester United and effectively became the club’s sleep coach.
Then, at the height of Alex Ferguson’s powers, United paved the way for other elite football clubs to follow similar paths by ensuring their playing assets had enough rest, recovery and ability. coping with monumental physical and mental stress.
Beyond tenuous ties such as current Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle, who once worked for United, and Sam Bird being a committed fan, Formula E now has another thread running back to sporting welfare.
Busy travel and race schedules, dreaded jet lag, delivery pressures for major manufacturers and sponsors have already led some riders down jagged paths of pills, potions and weird rituals.
On a flight from Punta del Este in 2018, a former Formula E driver, to whom I had told about my inability to sleep on airplanes, stealthily handed me a yellow and blue pill looking demonic. With a nod and a wink, he casually advised me to wash it down with a gin and tonic. The G&T wasn’t strong enough to defend itself, but the strange pill was left untouched, mainly due to the fact that the rider had suffered a succession of torrid incidents in recent races!
Overly stimulating and overly thoughtful self-care routines have undoubtedly had counterproductive effects for some drivers. From the familiar distractions of excessive screen time on tablets or phones to struggling to turn off the post-event adrenaline pump, some drivers struggle to sleep.
“As a driver, when you go to bed you think about your driving, you think about it so much and you don’t have the most relaxed sleep,” said Jerome D’Ambrosio, three-time Formula E winner and turned manager. of the Venturi team. The race.
“After the race, the sleep was horrible, horrible. I was exhausted and couldn’t sleep.
“Then you get on a flight home on Monday afternoon, you’re back in the simulator and you sort of build up fatigue.
“It was as a driver, now as a team principal I would say it’s different. There are peaks.
“When the race is on, there’s nothing I can do about it, so it’s actually more stressful than when you’re in the car. It’s intense, and it’s adrenaline pumping. I think that’s why you hear drivers overreacting [in a race].”
D’Ambrosio’s team – who currently top the Formula E standings – have recently entered into a partnership with a company that will analyze and improve the team’s performance from a welfare perspective. Craft 1861, which has previously worked with the IndyCar Carlin and Juncos squads, identifies a three-pronged approach – test, measure and refine.
This will include analyzing data on sleep patterns and the physical and mental makeup of team members, including, of course, drivers.
After that, Craft 1861 will begin what Eric Lujan, the American company’s co-founder and chief revenue officer, tells The Race are “tailored wellness protocols specifically for each individual.”
“It’s because we’re going to see someone who’s on the pit crew, for example, might find their peak stress is Saturday morning, and that can impact their digestion and other facets. “, adds Lujan.
“Maybe the jack person has low back pain issues for example, so we can focus on how we can look at physical therapy and the right strength exercises so we can get the right products.
“We look at the overall gains for the organization as a whole. Obviously, we will take them and create new innovative products and protocols. »
It feels almost utopian and feels more like a laid back new age retreat than the confines of a bustling pitlane. But there’s also a lot of realism involved via previous work with IndyCar teams and other athletes where the results have paid off.
If someone has a performance boost on you, it’s no different than any other progress you’d see with an EV motor or suspension :: Eric Lujan, Craft 1861
Formula E races involve weeks of direct preparation, including early starts and late finishes in the dimly lit hydraulic dungeons of driver simulators in the loop. Then there’s the E-Prix itself: a hazy whirlwind of sessions, data analysis, media and sponsor engagements before the grid even comes together.
“It’s not just about sleeping to rest at night, but what we have to do is find ways to hack into the body’s recovery system,” says Lujan.
“And it can even be with breathing and meditation techniques which can happen in blocks of 10-20 minutes between sessions, to help get back in the zone.
“So there’s a lot of strategy beyond just going to lay down in your hotel room and sleeping for eight hours, which isn’t always possible.”
D’Ambrosio believes that the opportunities to hone human development, not only in matters of sleep but also in overall mental performance, can be presented in Formula E and highlighted for society at large.
“That’s where the opportunity lies, not just for us as a team, but to be able to bring more wellness performance to everyone,” he says.
“It’s like ABS. An automated system developed in racing, and it helps give performance and in a more beneficial way in the grand scheme of things to everyone, normal road cars [users].
“We’re going to refine the processes, we’re going to work together to refine the technology, which is Craft 1861 recipes, and the stress testing – everything – so that ultimately it comes back into the world. everyday so that everyone can use.”
Ultimately, the motivation is competition. Drivers and teams know they will be defined by the points table at the end of the season.
In 2022, a season with a grid full of quality drivers competing in the fourth and final season of a well-sorted set of rules, the margins are tiny.
“One thing we certainly know about all professional athletes, but especially in motorsport, where the difference can be a few hundredths of a second, is really that any marginal gain you can get is vital,” says Lujan.
“Will it be something that other race car drivers and other teams adopt? I think the answer is absolutely yes.
“If someone else gets a performance boost on you, it’s no different than any other progress you’d see with an EV motor or suspension or whatever.”
Drivers can often be a finicky bunch in and out of the cockpit. Yet if something is proven to give them a contributory performance advantage, they will embrace it fully, even if it’s optimizing their zzzs or managing their thoughts.
And Ronaldo’s dreams? I think they will be mostly about himself, his goals, and himself, but not necessarily in that order.