The weirdly truncated pro basketball season of 2019-20 afforded a prime opportunity for a natural experiment.
After halting its season in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Basketball Association resumed the last two months of the season in July with the 22 top teams confined to play in a travel-less “bubble” within Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
“I’m a big sports fan, and I always wanted to look at how travel – and potentially jet lag and sleep disturbance – impacts sports performance,” [occupational health scientist Andrew McHill] said.
When a team travels across the country into different time zones, the mismatch between the new time zone and the team’s home time zone has a physiological effect in a very specific part of the body: the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the brain’s hypothalamus. In a precise activity like shooting a basketball, even slightly disrupting a player’s central circadian clock could be the difference between a ball that swishes through the net and one that rattles in and out of the rim.
The study found that shooting accuracy in the bubble improved significantly.
McHill said his findings suggest that NBA teams may be better off boarding a plane for the next city immediately after their previous game ends – as opposed to staying overnight and then flying the next day.