November 03, 2021

VP of Performance Science at Whoop

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #62

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Kristen Holmes, VP of Performance Science at Whoop. Holmes works with top researchers and hundreds of the best tactical, pro, and collegiate athletes and teams in the world to optimize training, recovery, and sleep.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Kristen sat down with Sam and discussed sleep, adaptability, and how regulating employees’ sleep can optimize their health, performance, and productivity.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 7 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Holmes shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “The one behavior that shows resilience, is consistency.”
  • “Leaders need to be good role models.”
  • “Helping your workforce get a handle on sleep is going to help you be a better company.”
  • “We need to help people get their sleep right, educate them, and be good role models.”
  • “Individuals who want to be successful at adapting to change need a more robust foundation.”
  • “A big piece of the hiring puzzle is finding out if the person has the skills to be able to take care of themselves.”
  • “For every 10 minutes of sleep debt, we see a 10% deficit in executive functions.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: So Kristen, and I guess maybe a good place to start off, you want to maybe tell us a little bit about yourself, your story? Start at the beginning. 

Kristen: Yeah. My name’s Kristen Holmes. I’m the vice president of performance science at   Whoop and I’ve had a pretty long career in sports. I started as a two sport athlete, in college at the University of Iowa. So a big 10 athlete. And then I went on, did a whole bunch of school, and played for the US national team. Then went on to coach field hockey at Princeton University. I coached there for 13 years. We did pretty well. We won five fall championships in 13 years and a national championship. So, it was kind of an unbelievable experience to coach those young women. 

And then I really got into, while I was at Princeton, I really got into building some technology there, really trying to kind of solve for the time that my athletes were not with me, the other 22 to 21 hours of the day, really trying to understand how that influenced their capacity. So I was really trying to solve the problem. ‘Okay, how do I really manage their volume and intensity when they’re with me so I can keep them healthy and safe,’ and I’ll allow them to develop as athletes in the best way possible. And what I realized is that their next day capacity, kind of how they showed up, had very little to do with actually how it was training them.

So it was really more about the time that they were away from me. I started building some technology to kind of solve that problem. So quantifying things like hydration and nutrition and sleep and, some of the kind of psychological factors that are really influential to our performance.

So it was building this pretty robust performance education platform and was using all sorts of different types of technology to kind of quantify some of the physiological trends. And that’s when I met the CEO at Whoop because I found out they were kind of circling around the same ideas and I ended up leaving Princeton to join Whoop, to kind of help build the Whoop performance optimization platform.

Sam: How would you describe Whoop to someone who didn’t know what it was?

Kristen: Whoop is a 24/7, physiological monitoring device and the device is one that you wear on your wrist. It’s not a watch, it doesn’t tell you time or send text messages. It is just on your wrist, passively collecting data, and then all of that data is transformed and sent to your phone where it is visualized into, what we consider kind of the three most important buckets, related to your cardiovascular load. We kind of call that strain, and recovery, which is your capacity to take on the strain, mental, physical, and emotional, and then sleep. And we go into a lot of detail about your sleep, so you can ask better questions of your sleep and you can get to the root of what is going well and what isn’t going well and so you could modify your behavior accordingly.

Sam: I’m going to say, I must have half a dozen employees that run around every day and have   Whoops on. And almost like when it first started, they were like their own clique around them.

Kristen: I know, it’s so addictive. You just want to talk to everyone about your data and if you don’t have Whoop, no one cares about your data, but if you have Whoop then it becomes very cliquey very, very, very quickly. 

Sam: And I guess in your role as, it’s a cool title, VP of performance, what are the things you’re tackling every day? 

Kristen: A lot of my work these days is around trying to understand what behaviors contribute the most to, or influence the most, the biometrics that we track. So, trying to get a bit more scientific understanding around, for example, breathwork and meditation, and some of these more non-specific types of modalities that people are engaged in,  how do those actually affect sleep parameters for example or parameters related to sleep? How do they affect your recovery? Things like your heart rate variability and your resting heart rate, things that are really indicative of your overall health and wellness. What are some of these, can we kind of quantify what these behaviors are doing, and how it might be helping so we can really, hopefully, build some of these mechanisms in the app so people can have access to them. But I think kind of creating a taxonomy in terms of really only surfacing the modalities that are really the most efficacious, right, in terms of impacting the biometrics that we track. 

So we’re really trying. My job really is about reducing the noise in the industry by putting some scientific understanding around a lot of the modalities that are out there, and then productizing those modalities so our members can have access to them.

Sam: What’s been like the biggest learning curve or biggest surprise for you over your time at Whoop? As you look at probably a lot of really cool data, I’m assuming… anything surprising that maybe a manager out there might use to help someone out there that’s thinking every day about how they develop their people?

Kristen: I think really the most important behavior, so we did a big study with, gosh, I think we had 50,000 Whoop members in it, and we looked at the data three months before quarantine hit and then three months after quarantine. And we were basically kind of looking for signatures in the data that would help us understand, what is a profile of resilience? What are the behaviors that people do? Are there any behaviors that really predict human resilience, resilience measured via heart rate variability and resting heart rate? So that’s kind of a proxy for both your physiological and psychological resilience. And the one behavior that surfaced to the top, and we’ve been kind of able to replicate this in some of the studies that I’m doing as well that are not with Whoop member data, but with other cohorts, folks who are wearing Whoop, but they’re not members and are just part of these study, the one behavior that we see surface to the top is sleep consistency.

So the degree to which people that the consistency with which people go to bed and wake up, correlates to physiological and psychological robustness or resilience. So if you’re a manager, and you’re really trying to get the most out of your workforce, there is no question that that is the one behavior that you want to try to enable for your workforce. And what’s tough about that is, my preferred bedtime is potentially different than yours, right. So I’m perfectly fine getting to the office at like 7:00 AM. I’m up early. I wake up early, I go to bed early. That is like my optimal kind of zone. But then I have colleagues, some of my software buddies, who go to bed at 11 or 11:30.

So their rise time is later. So asking those folks to come into the office, even at eight o’clock or nine o’clock, is maybe not a great ask. When you think about their biological preference for sleep and when they’re going to be going to bed and when they’re going to be waking up.

So I think that it sounds kind of crazy, but I think having flexible hours, and this is really what we saw with the study is, once people were able to kind of settle into a preferred sleep/wake time, people got healthier, fast. And if we look at the research around daylight savings, it’s really obvious when you look at the U S data, when the most cardiovascular events happen, so heart attacks and strokes, the most heart attacks and strokes or cardiovascular events happen around daylight savings.

So that just tells you kind of how sensitive our system is to these kinds of changes in sleep/wake time.

Sam: It’s wild. It makes me think of the overwhelming number of workers, not just in the US but globally that are in the service sector who do work on, you mentioned your software buddies, but so many workers that wake up every day and are subjected to all types of schedules that they can’t predict, and just kind of layer in the fact that maybe, in the US, one and two workers are low wage, work in other stressors and mental health challenges. It’s just, I don’t know. I wish this was like a product we could put on every worker and it might change the way managers think about certain sectors of their workforce and how they should care for them better. 

Kristen: Yeah, without a doubt. And that’s the thing, we all have a chronotype, and that’s kind of our own internal timing that’s defined by the midpoint of your sleep, or your mid-sleep. And everyone is going to be different, but it has such a significant impact on, to your point, your mental and physical, and emotional wellbeing. That it’s just not something we should ignore, you know? And we’ve just got this kind of archaic view of looking at work, I think, when you kind of zoom out in these kinds of arbitrary start times, that work for some folks, but don’t work for a lot of other folks. And, yeah, I mean, I think from my standpoint, that to me is the place to start, like helping people get their sleep right. Educate the hell out of them so they understand the necessity of sleep, and be good role models.

I think this is another piece for leaders, to be a good role model. Figure out your own sleep. Right. We understand this is another study we did with McKinsey, we had a hundred executives go through the six months study, and what we saw is that the individuals who… I’m just gonna explain a little bit about the metric just so you can understand this, but what we saw essentially is that for every 10 minutes of sleep debts that these folks accumulated, they saw a 10% decrease in the next day, executive functioning and working memory.

So for every 10 minutes of sleep debt, they saw a 10% decrease in the next day executive functioning, working memory. So you can imagine if you’re carrying around 40, 50, 60 minutes of sleep debt, the impact that’s going to have on your cognitive mental control, which is really what your executive function working memory really is. 

Sam: That’s wild.

Kristen: Yeah, it’s crazy. So yeah, sleep really matters. So I think helping your workforce get a handle on that and educating folks is definitely gonna help you be a better company, no question. 

Sam: I got to ask you as well, just given your background, Kristen, as an athlete and a coach, today in the workforce there’s a lot of managers that coaching their people is a primary responsibility with a lot more strain right now as so many workers are coming back to work, workers are maybe coming back to a job that doesn’t look the same, maybe it was one way pre-COVID and now they’re coming back and things are different, they have to kind of learn a new position on top of it. Any coaching insight from you? Cause again, like I said, I feel like your background and the things you’re looking at every day, as you think about performance, any feedback for the coaches out there?

Kristen: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of what you’re talking about is just, are you adaptable? Can you adapt to change? And I think individuals who want to be successful at adapting to change really have to build a more robust foundation. I think individuals who adapt really well, generally speaking, are pretty conscientious about the food that they’re putting in their body, they’re probably getting the sleep that they need consistently, they’re drinking a lot of water, and the stuff probably sounds a little trivial. To me as a coach of very successful teams and a leader of very successful teams here at Whoop, I could say that, the folks who understand the physiological and the psychological factors that influence their performance and they kind of build habits and routines around that and account for that and take care of that are able to adapt and change, and most importantly recognize when something’s not working.

I think part of the psychological side is really about understanding what it is that you value. What do you want to think about, what do you care about? And does work provide an outlet for you to do the things that you really care about? 

And I think ensuring that alignment is important, and not everything of course that you do across the day is going to be super exciting and there’s obviously a bit of a grind to certain aspects of work and that’s just normal.

But I think overall, do you really believe in the mission of the company? And I think that that’s really important. And I think as leaders of teams or companies or teams within a company, that’s a big piece of the hiring puzzle, is making sure that, all right, does this person have the skill set to be able to take care of themselves? And if they can do that, then they’re going to be able to show up and adapt to the change within the organization. 

Sam: I would imagine that the dopamine hit, to make it sound simple, that a user with Whoop gets from using the product, that feedback that I think a lot of workers are thirsty for from a manager, if they get it, consistently it may motivate them to work harder, it might better connect them to a mission and bring them back,versus those that don’t. So I want to ask, I’m sure you see falloff as well as any product. There are folks that maybe buy Whoop, use it for 30 days, and then maybe one day, forget to put it on and they stop.

What learnings or what insights have you had around why people fall off and what the key is for people to be consistent and adapt and not fall off?

Kristen: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s funny. I did a podcast with Dr. Jim Loehr, and he’s a real famous, I think literally the first kind of sports psychologist, he kind of, I think coined the term “performance psychologist” but he works with companies and executives and military and healthcare and sports teams and he calls it “face the truth”. And I think a lot of folks when you’re not used to getting objective data about your body, it can be a little jarring, especially when it’s maybe not the prettiest picture.

So I feel like that kind of agitation that arises from seeing data that potentially signals, okay, I’ve got some work to do here, some people just don’t like to see that. So I think that that, and I’m not judging that, but I think that there is kind of that moment where, okay, I’ve got actually some work to do here.

So I think folks that are motivated to really live their values and have as much energy as they can and stave off disease tend to really gravitate and stay on the platform. And not that folks, I think everyone wants that, but it’s, am I willing to make the choices that are going to really position me to be engaged and present, and some folks are into that and some folks maybe aren’t willing to make some of those lifestyle and behavior changes.

Sam: Sure. Kristen, thank you. This has been great. I have one final question again, the workforce a little bit here. The topic of the future of work is something everybody’s talking about. What’s your hope for the future of work? 

Kristen: Wow. I guess honestly, I feel like a workforce that is able to get sufficient sleep would be great. What we could create together would be, I think, out of this world. I just have seen the transformation and individuals who start to go from being a poor sleeper to finally understanding the behaviors that actually drive good sleep and starting to get a handle on that, it’s transformative. And I think, if we’re being honest, a bulk of our workforce is kind of walking around in a state that’s equivalent to being kind of cognitively drunk, and I don’t think that makes for a happy, healthy workforce. 

So I think for me adjusting policies that enable your people to work when they’re at their peak times of alertness, and go to bed when they are at their low points of alertness, to me, would be an unbelievable shift, and I think would just make the world really a better place. 

Sam: Kristen, thanks for your time. 

Kristen: My pleasure, Sam. Thanks for having me.

Topics Discussed: Sleep, Mental Health, Coaching, Leadership, Resilience, Adaptability, Consistency, Work Flexibility

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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