More sleep = more gold.

As the Paris Games approach, that formula is driving the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s laser focus on sleep and mental health.

“We're looking at matters of one second, one goal or one point,” said Dr. Jessica Bartley, the USOPC’s Senior Director of Psychological Services. “And when we look at all of the different factors and where we can get an edge, sleep is definitely one of those that can put us in an incredible position. Sleep is incredibly important.”

The Psychological Services team is new to the landscape of the 129-year-old USOPC, which launched a mental health task force in 2020, a few weeks after the COVID-19 shutdown. Four years later, the team now features 14 mental health providers and robust resource guides, programming and screenings.

Recently, one of those mental health screenings revealed an unequivocal and consistent worry among the athletes.

“Sleep is their number-one concern,” Bartley said. “A lot of athletes are pretty distressed about jet lag and sleep. They ask us, ‘How do I get enough sleep to perform at my best?’ Sleep is one of the indicators and is often highly correlated with mental health concerns.”

Those don’t sound like Olympic gold medal recipes.

Athletes flagging sleep as a stressor isn’t at all surprising. The International Olympic Committee’s mental health toolkit notes that 49% of Olympic athletes can be categorized as “poor sleepers,” according to a 2016 study. That same study links poor sleep among elite athletes with “a higher stress state” and “increased daytime dysfunction.”

“Sleep is pretty foundational to both performance and health, both in the short term and long term,” said Emily Clark, a licensed clinical and sport psychologist who joined the USOPC in 2021. “And many athletes say sleep is a priority, but often that their life circumstances make it really challenging.”

Olympic-level athletes constantly crisscross the globe for competitions. At the same time, many work jobs that require early wakeups, are parents to young children and train multiple times a day. These responsibilities all shave off valuable sleep hours for the world’s top athletes.

“Societally, we don't really do ourselves any favors, either,” Clark said.

Colloquially, there’s a lot of, ‘I'll sleep when I'm dead.’ It can feel very counterproductive.

So, Olympic athletes generally don’t sleep enough, know they need to sleep more and are stressed about it.

Enter the USOPC’s Sleep Optimization Program, for which Bartley and Clark serve as the psychological services representatives on a ten-person working group including psychologists, physiologists, dieticians, strength and conditioning experts and medical providers, plus a team of outside sleep medicine experts. The program will be offered to all U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes who qualify for the Paris Games. They can then choose to opt in or out.

Athletes who opt in will fill out screening tools about their own sleep behavior and track their sleep for a few days. Then, the USOPC’s staff will step in.

“With that information, they'll meet with one of our team members who can provide consultation regarding changes they can make to help them leave for Paris with the best possible sleep, given their contextual limitations,” Clark said.

An example: Bartley and Clark might recommend to a certain athlete that they start to wake up earlier throughout the week leading up to their Paris flight, a tool to limit jet lag.

“There are some really interesting pieces that we're able to infuse that aren't that hard,” Bartley said. “We ask them, ‘Have you thought about going to bed a bit earlier? Have you thought about instead of reading on your phone, reading a paperback book? Have you thought about when to turn the TV off? Have you thought about white noise? Have you thought about the temperature? Have you thought about the lighting?

“We've really been trying to think about the science behind it and how we can help the athletes sleep to perform at their best.”

If that level of detail sounds stressful, it’s because it is. Clark notes that intense tracking and over-analyzing sleep can actually induce even more stress. Many people have been down the thought loop: I’m not going to get enough sleep tonight. I’m only getting X hours of sleep. I’m going to be sluggish tomorrow.

These are perfectly fine human thoughts, Clark maintains — and she makes sure her athletes know that to avoid extra stress.

“If we experience short sleep one night, it’s OK,” Clark said. “It’s less important to overstress about sleep than it is to simply set up the potential for your body to get the sleep.

“We don’t buy into the myth that, ‘If I don't get enough sleep, my next day is going to be terrible.’”

Athletes like sprinter Gabby Thomas, who earned silver and bronze medals at the Tokyo Olympics, have been outspoken on the importance of sleep. Thomas begins her sleep routine around 8:00 p.m. most nights, shutting off her TV, phone and all external communications before getting in bed. Thomas also recently finished her master’s degree in epidemiology from the University of Texas, for which she wrote a paper studying sleep epidemiology among Black Americans and racial disparities in sleep disorders.

Thomas isn’t alone in focusing on bedtime. Shot put legend Ryan Crouser, now on the verge of a possible third Olympic gold, credits sleep with keeping him at the top of his sport for nearly a full decade.

Another key of the USOPC’s messaging is that athletes of varying ages, body types and sports need to learn what’s best for them specifically. Everyone is unique. For example, Connor Fields, who won a BMX gold medal at the Rio Olympics, said he has learned to avoid practice rides following rough nights of sleep, thus avoiding sluggishness-induced injuries.

Every detail matters. Once this year’s Olympians arrive in Paris, their Olympic Village will feature a unique quirk: no air conditioning. In lieu of AC, organizers have installed a water-cooling system underneath the village. Aiming to minimize the Olympics’ impact on climate change, the project is estimated to reduce carbon impact by 45%.

The experimental setup has the potential to impact athletes’ sleep, so USOPC personnel have geared their teachings to cover this — and every other detail of the upcoming Games.

“It's cool to be able to start to help the athletes visualize,” Bartley said. “They know that we've got everything under control and have thought through it.”

So, as these U.S. Olympians crash into those beds in Paris, they’ll do so armed with more sleep resources than any athletes in history.

Perhaps, those extra zzz’s will mean a few more gold medals.