The Student Athlete's Sleep Playbook

/ May 28, 2019

Welcome back to our regular series with certified sleep educator Terry Cralle, MS, RN. In this post, Cralle explains why sleep is so beneficial to student athletes and offers a sleep game plan for them.

We could go on and on about why students should get more sleep. It helps with learning, productivity, mood, judgment, friendships, even maintaining a healthy weight and catching fewer colds and flu. But if none of that is persuasive enough, here's another reason some young people will care about: Sleep helps you WIN.

Consistent, quality sleep is linked to heightened athletic performance and competitive success in student athletes. Yet they are the ones most likely to give sleep short shrift. In fact, almost 70% of teens are not getting the recommended hours of sleep, with one study finding insufficient sleep in about 60% of the college population.

It's not just researchers who think that's a problem: Students themselves think so too. In one survey of student athletes, 94% of respondents said that they needed more sleep.

Sleep and the competitive edge: benefits of sleep for student athletes

There's ample evidence that sufficient sleep is a natural performance enhancer. (That's why athletic teams take it so seriously.) Whether it's swinging a bat, dunking a basket, or running the 100-yard dash, sleep can mean the difference between optimal performance, mediocre performance, or poor performance—effectively, winning or losing.

Here are 13 ways sleep plays a role in sports performance:

Academics: Many schools have a “no pass, no play" policy. Numerous studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between better sleep and better grades.

Accuracy: In one study, tennis players saw improvement in serving accuracy when they increased their nightly sleep by two hours.

Injury: Cells grow, repair, and rebuild during sleep, making it essential to athletic performance as well as injury recovery and prevention. In a 2014 study of athletes in grades 7 to 12, those who slept on average less than eight hours were 1.7 times more likely to have had an injury compared with athletes who slept for eight hours or more.

Mood: Research has shown a connection between sleep deprivation and the increase in feelings of depression, tension, confusion, and anger.

Muscle: Sleep helps young athletes build muscle strength. During sleep, the body releases a growth hormone that is vital to muscle recovery and development. According to research, short sleep duration may be a risk factor for decreased muscle strength. Just as with cognitive memory, sleep seems to solidify muscle memory as well.

Optimism: It's undeniable that optimism and positivity are helpful in all areas of life, including sports. In a 2011 study of 291 children, sufficient sleep quantity and good sleep quality were associated with higher levels of optimism. In adolescents, longer sleep duration has predicted higher self-esteem.

Practice: Sleep to Win author James Maas, PhD, says that sports teams that traditionally practice twice a day perform better when they skip the morning practice if it means members get more sleep. Professional teams, including the New York Jets, have changed their practice schedules to provide players more time for sleep. “We take professional athletes and we give them one more hour of sleep," said Maas in an interview on HuffPost Live. “We make sure every night they're getting a good night's sleep, and we make sure they don't get up too early in the morning. Even at the pro level, these people are amazed that their performance actually improves when they add that extra hour of sleep."

Reaction: Extending their sleep to 10 hours per day enabled Stanford swimmers to improve their 15-meter sprint times, reaction times, turn times, and kick strokes.

Resilience: Mental toughness in teenagers—confidence, commitment, challenge, and control—has been found to be directly and indirectly associated with sleep quality. Research demonstrates a likely bidirectional relationship: Improving sleep in adolescents should increase mental toughness, while improving mental toughness should increase sleep.

Skill learning: When you sleep, your brain consolidates the information it has picked up during the day. Much of the improvement of a motor skill, for example, depends on nocturnal sleep.

Speed: A Stanford study involving a men's basketball team found that players who received around two extra hours of sleep every day showed greater speed in sprinting activities.

Split-second decision-making: Sleep deprivation negatively affects decision-making, according to a study of West Point cadets in the journal SLEEP.

Stress: Sleep does wonders when it comes to stress prevention and reduction in teens. Research has shown that sleep problems lead to a heightened stress response in teens.

A game plan for better sleep for student athletes

Getting enough sleep takes commitment, just like training does—especially when it has to be balanced with schoolwork, clubs, family, friends, part-time work, and more. The following "game plan" can help student athletes do their best.

  • Limit caffeine use throughout the day, and do not consume any caffeine after 2 p.m. (ideally 12 noon). This stimulant—which can stay in your system for up to 12 hours—can exacerbate anxiety and can create disturbances in sleep patterns. (Read my post about why kids should kick the caffeine habit.)
  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule by waking up and going to bed at the same time every day. Try not to deviate from it more than two hours on weekends.
  • Make shut-eye a non-negotiable part of your schedule and plan other activities around it. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine provides sleep duration guidelines for ages four months to 18 years.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially if you're active. Even mild dehydration will diminish sleep quality. Dehydration contributes to leg cramps, snoring, and fatigue and can exacerbate feelings of tension and anxiety.
  • Make the bedroom a sleep sanctuary—cozy, serene, clutter-free, cool, quiet, and dark. Even a small amount of light can wreak havoc on sleep. Block ambient light sources with blackout curtains, or try wearing a sleep mask—it really works! (Here's how sleep masks help you sleep.) Ditto for noise. Block it with a white noise app, noise-canceling headphones, or old-fashioned earplugs.
  • Take a nap. Napping may be beneficial for athletes who are experiencing sleep deprivation or are required to wake early for training or competition. A 2007 study of the effects of a lunchtime nap following four hours of sleep showed that a 30-minute nap increased sprint performance and alertness.
  • Avoid phones, movies, video games, and television an hour before bed. The blue light that screens emit stifles production of melatonin (the hormone that puts you to sleep). If you must check a device, use the "night shift" mode.
  • A cooler bedroom is more conducive to sleep. Set the thermostat at 70 degrees or below (65-67 degrees is ideal) and keep blankets handy to regulate temperature during the night. If your feet get cold, wear socks to bed. Doing so can help you fall asleep faster.
  • Know the warning signs of sleep deprivation. Some subtle signs are problems focusing and moodiness. If you fall asleep the second your head hits the pillow at night and use the snooze button more times than you can count in the morning, you are probably sleep deprived. Falling asleep at inappropriate times, such as during class, while talking to friends, or while driving or eating are obvious and dangerous signs of sleep deprivation.

Adopting good sleep habits now can set students up for success on and off the field later in life. Heck, it might even help them make it into the record books. Take it from pro football player Kyle Long: “Getting that eight, nine hours is just as important as weightlifting and studying your playbook," he told Thrive Global. “I'd absolutely say sleep is a weapon."

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