Sleep is essential to maximizing your potential as a human. More sleep makes us smarter, more motivated, more charismatic, stronger, faster, more coordinated, more resilient—you name a desirable trait in sport or in life, and better sleep can likely help you improve it.
Problem is, most teenagers are terrible at it. Or perhaps more accurately, our modern world is terribly-suited for them to be good at it. Their itineraries have never been filled with a greater number of organized activities, all of which only cannibalize time that could spent on shuteye. Smartphones and tablets have made it exceedingly easy to stay connected to a never-ending feed of engaging sights and sounds, which unfortunately has had a negative impact on sleep quality. And the fundamentals of the high school schedule are at odds with their bodies’ natural sleep rhythms.
The average start time for public high schools is 7:59 a.m. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends teens get 8-10 hours of sleep a night for good health, and athletes can absolutely benefit from being around the 10-hour side of that range, if not beyond. If your school day starts at about 8 a.m., you’re likely gonna have to get up no later than 7:30 a.m. to get there on time. Working back from that number, that means you’d have to be asleep by 9:30 p.m. to get 10 hours of sleep.
That’s not realistic for about a zillion different reasons. Even if you somehow could convince a teen to try to fall asleep by 9:30 p.m., which would likely require them filling every hour of their day with an organized activity and having zero time for fun (hello, burnout), their body may make it impossible.
“Biological sleep patterns shift towards later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence—meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11 p.m.,” the National Sleep Foundation writes. According to a 2012 Wall Street Journal article, this shift to a later natural sleep time for adolescents continues until it peaks at age 19.5 in girls and 20.9 in boys. Only then do their biological clocks began to rebound back toward the earlier bed times which come natural for older adults.
A recent study of 3,000 fourth, fifth and sixth graders found midday napping resulted in increased happiness, self-control, grit and academic performance plus less behavioral issues among the students. Sixth graders who napped three or more times per week saw a 7.6% increase in academic performance. “How many kids at school would not want their scores to go up by 7.6 points out of 100?” study co-author Adrian Raine told ScienceDaily.
Research on napping in college students has found similar results, while also indicating robust effects on athletic performance for student-athletes. A 2011 study in the journal SLEEP found that Stanford basketball players were able to dramatically improve their on-court performance simply by increasing their total amount of sleep time. After increasing their sleep to 10 hours per night for five to seven weeks, players saw big improvements in sprint performance and shooting accuracy. Reported fatigue also decreased. College schedules generally allow for breaks between classes, making napping during the day quite convenient.
Beyond college age, many of the world’s most productive companies—and winningest sports teams—now encourage napping and offer special rooms specifically designed for such purpose. But looping back to the crux of this article, there’s arguably no population who needs as much quality sleep as teens. There’s also arguably no population (new parents aside) whose circumstances make it tougher to get enough shuteye at night. With that, would American high schools be wise to start integrating mandated nap or “rest” times into the school day?
In China, time for napping is frequently built into the post-lunch schedule for students. A 2018 study examined Chinese adolescents and found that those who napped five or more times a week had “sustained attention, better nonverbal reasoning ability and spatial memory.” The researchers pinpointed a nap duration of 30 to 60 minutes as being most beneficial, as it correlated with better speed and accuracy in attention tasks, but shorter naps can still have benefit.
In 2005, 208 students at Meizen High School in Kurume, Japan took part in a 40-day experiment in which they took at least one 15-minute nap a week during the school day. Students reported better academic performance, emotional states and concentration than those who did not nap.
Integrating a 15- or 20-minute nap time into the school day would likely be a simpler bureaucratic feat than shifting the entire school day back a couple hours. It’s commonplace in American pre-schools and kindergartens, which is great, but teens could arguably benefit from the practice even more. While school-wide implementation would take time, creative coaches might be able to find a way to work naps into the day for their players.
High-tech sleep “pods” do exist, but they can be prohibitively expensive. A dark, cool room where screens and chit-chat are banned is easy enough to create and can be effective for helping teens relax (some beanbags and yoga mats never hurt, either). In the aforementioned Japanese high school experiment, some soft music (Mozart, to be exact) was piped into the napping area. Even if students have trouble actually falling asleep at school, simply designating a “sanctuary” space such as this gives them a place to chill out and recharge during the day. With all that’s asked of them, don’t they deserve it?
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