Sleep Well//

NFL Star Kirk Cousins on How Quality Sleep Raises His Game and Improves His Performance

Thrive Global’s Sleep Editor-at-Large, Shelly Ibach, talks to Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins in this exclusive interview.

Photo Credit: Minnesota Vikings
Photo Credit: Minnesota Vikings

I always say that sleeping well at night is essential for being your best self during the day. Simply put, sleep helps you lead a healthier, happier, more fulfilling and productive life. No matter what your goals and ambitions might be, sleep will help you reach them. Increasingly, elite athletes, coaches, and trainers are also understanding the link between quality of sleep and performance — as everything from what they sleep on to how many hours of shut-eye they get each night makes a huge difference on and off the field. 

As a proud sleep and wellness partner to the NFL, we at Sleep Number are helping more than 1,800 NFL players be their best with proven quality sleep. Armed with our Sleep Number 360® smart beds with SleepIQ® technology, these athletes have discovered for themselves the difference that individualized sleep makes.  

I was excited to sit down with Kirk Cousins — a Minnesota Vikings quarterback, husband, and dad to two young sons — to talk about the impact of getting consistent quality sleep — on his game, his marriage and his family life. I love his story about the guys in the locker room sharing their scores. They are helping us make quality sleep a badge of honor!

Shelly Ibach: You’ve had an impressive year with the Vikings so far, congratulations! How much of a priority is sleep for you?

Kirk Cousins: If I don’t sleep well everything goes to the wayside, it’s my kryptonite! In fact, my dad said to my now-wife, Julie, right before the wedding: “Kirk’s a great kid and a great son. But if he doesn’t get enough sleep, he’s going to be cranky and difficult; otherwise, he’s a joy to be around.” And it’s true, if I don’t sleep well, I can become a different person. For a long time I didn’t prioritize sleep. But in the last few years, learning about the connection between sleep and health and performance has enabled me to take ownership of my sleep quality and be on top of it.

SI: What is your optimal amount of sleep?

KC: Everybody’s different — but I’ve found that I need about eight and a half or nine hours of sleep. Getting that amount not only benefits me in the short term, I know I’ll keep reaping the benefits as I get older too. If I sleep for 10 and a half or 11 hours some nights, that’s not actually ideal, because consistency is important and much better than swings in either direction. I try to maintain a routine, but inevitably, with our football schedule and away games and night games, it’s hard to be perfect. I just do the best I can.

SI: How is your sleep when you’re away from home?

KC: I sleep better at home in my normal environment, but we’re always in hotels for home and away games. So I use little tricks to make it as much like home as possible, like sleeping on the same side of the bed as I would at home. I listen to white noise (the sound of a fan) on my phone so that it blocks out any loud disturbances, like people in the hallway or ambulances and firetrucks going by. I put a towel underneath the door as well, so that any light from the hallway is blocked. 

SI: What’s your relationship with your devices?

KC: I’m careful about blue light. I have a shield on my laptop so that in the evening it filters out the blue light. I don’t want to give my body any cues to be waking up when it should be slowing down. I don’t check my phone in the middle of the night, because just looking at that light can cause your brain to want to wake up and get going. 

SI: What impact does consistent quality sleep have on your performance?

KC: It helps a lot in my physical recovery, enabling my body to heal and recover. The mistake I made for a long time was that I was always taking naps, but not having a good sleep routine. I learned that it was much better to be disciplined and get good sleep every night rather than throwing my body in and out of sleep patterns. 

Photo Credit: Minnesota Vikings

SI: How does sleep specifically help your game?

KC: In our sport, we talk about how availability is just as important as ability. If you’re talented but you’re injured, you can’t help your team. But if you’re able to be out on the field, you can make a difference. It is so important to sleep well consistently, so that you can be out there the next day. Certainly, that’s the case during the football season. As athletes, so much of the game is physical, but the mental side is also important. I make split-second decisions over and over again during a game. The better I sleep, the sharper my mind is, and the clearer my decision-making is on game day in terms of where I go with the football. 

SI: How does sleep help you through challenging times?

KC: I think that often when people are going through tough times, it will directly affect their sleep, and vice versa. If you’re not sleeping well, you might find you have a health issue you can point back to and say, “Well, it was because I wasn’t sleeping well for several weeks.” You might start to notice how much it’s affecting your mood and your attitude and your ability to function. As athletes, we often think we’ve got it all figured out, and yet it only takes one night of poor sleep to realize how frail we can be. Honestly, it’s a great reminder of humility. It keeps me humble when I realize I am going to need a good night of sleep to be the person I need to be the next day. Life is going to throw adversity at you, but you’re giving yourself a fighting chance with everything when you’re taking care of your sleep.

SI: You are an inspiring leader. Do you talk about the importance of quality sleep with your teammates?

KC: What’s fun is that a lot of my teammates have Sleep Number 360® smart beds too, so we compare each other’s SleepIQ® score and say, “How did you sleep last night?”  That helps us to keep the dialogue going in the locker room. My wife and I also compete to see who can sleep better.

SI: What do you do to calm your mind before a big game? 

KC: Melatonin helps me. I also feel better when all my preparation has been done. So I have a checklist every week of what I need to do to be ready to go for the game. Once I’ve done that, I remind myself that the work’s been done, the hay is in the barn, and it’s time to go to sleep!  

SI: What is your biggest sleep challenge?

KC: I struggle with sleeping after a game. I tend to wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about the game we just played — was it good or bad? I am often tossing and turning. Sometimes even if it is 3:30 a.m., I give up and say: “I’m going to start my day,” and I get up (especially if I’m keeping my wife awake). On other days I try to breathe deeply and slowly and I’ll end up falling back asleep. 

SI: Any sleep tips you can share?  

KC: I always make sure no light is coming into the bedroom, and we have room-darkening shades — I’m very serious about blocking out any cracks of light. Prayer helps me get a good night’s sleep so that I am not carrying stresses and worries during the night, which can have a negative impact on the quality of your sleep. I also practice good quality breathing to help me relax before bed. 

SI: What’s your approach to alcohol and caffeine and food before bed?

KC: I don’t have any caffeine after noon. I stay away from sodas, and I don’t really touch alcohol other than when Julie and I are out to dinner and I order a glass of wine. It is important for me to eat protein before bed so that my stomach doesn’t get empty during the night and wake me up, so I might have a smoothie with protein powder.

SI: How do you get to sleep the night before a big game?

KC: I’ve always been an early riser, and I wake up at 6:30 or 7 in the morning on my own body clock, no matter what time I go to bed. But on the morning of game day I tend to wake up at 4:30 or 5 because my mind is racing, so that is all the more reason to need to get to sleep earlier. For a long time, I would use “wearables,” but I didn’t like wearing something to bed; it interfered with my sleep. My Sleep Number 360® smart bed does the tracking for me now and I don’t have to wear anything. I can check the app and see how I slept. Knowing the quality of my sleep is very valuable. 

SI: Tell me about your Sleep Number stats — my Sleep Number setting is 40 and my average SleepIQ score is 82. Can you beat that?!

KC: I like to sleep on a firm mattress, so I set my bed to 100 and I use the foot warmer at the bottom of the bed to help me get to sleep. My SleepIQ® score is usually somewhere between the high 70s and the low 80s. 

SI: Do you and Julie find that having an individualized bed helps you both get a good night’s sleep?

KC: The bed is great. Julie likes a much softer mattress than I do and before we had our Sleep Number bed, we couldn’t find a bed that would work for both of us. We like it so much that we bought four, because we live in multiple places throughout the year and we have one in each place: in Minnesota, where we obviously live for much of the year, at Julie’s parents’ home in Atlanta, at the house where I grew up in Michigan, and in the Caribbean where we go for vacations. We’ve really prioritized sleep.

SI: Can you talk about the impact of good sleep on family life? 

KC: When I get home from work at about 6:30 at night I’m really tired, but I haven’t seen my wife and kids all day, and they need me to be fully alert and ready to be a dad and a husband and engage with them. So it’s crucial that I’ve slept well the night before.

I’m very involved in my family’s nighttime routine. I get home from work and the boys are already eating dinner. I put my older son, Cooper, to bed every night and my wife takes care of  the young one, Turner, and we both do bath time with them. We read together: Dr. Seuss books or Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, and we pray. I sing to the boys and then we turn the lights out. Those are precious moments and I want to be able to enjoy them and be there for my sons, and I’m certainly going to be a more present dad when I’ve been sleeping well. When they are in bed, Julie and I eat dinner together in peace. After dinner, I’ll read for a bit and head up to bed. I have a glass of water on my bedside table. I need to be in bed by about 9 p.m.

SI: What’s your morning routine?

KC: I am usually up at 6 and I try to have enough time to take my vitamins and read for a little bit. I block out some quiet time before heading to work. If I have a meeting at 7 a.m., we have breakfast together at our team cafeteria at the practice facility.

SI: For you personally, how would you sum up the value of quality sleep on your performance as an athlete?KC: Sleep is just as important as eating healthy food, training hard, finding a good coach and having great teammates. It can contribute to all those pieces of an athlete’s life — and make them work better. Until recently, it’s been the forgotten piece of performance and many people have become used to functioning on very little sleep as a badge of honor. The opposite is true. We need to make sleep a badge of honor, knowing that in the short and long run it’s going to provide major benefits. It is crucial. I’m my best self when I’ve slept well. I can think clearly and I’m not going to be out of whack. My brain chemistry, my focus and my attention to detail are based on my quality of sleep. It’s important for me to have a clear mind and no fogginess. Quality sleep is a blessing that you cannot take for granted. 

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