As an athletic performance coach that works with high school athletes, I am often asked by parents and teenagers alike what they can do to enhance their performance. My first response is often what they are not expecting. Typically, they imagine a series of exercises or a particular style of training as an answer. But my initial response is always unquestionably the same: Get Regular and Restorative Sleep Every Night!
In my mind, learning how to prioritize and attain quality sleep each night is one of the most impactful life skills anyone can learn. It can improve almost all aspects of life and performance and can pay dividends throughout our entire life span. There is no training program that will be effective without adequate sleep, and since it is the only training done every day, it is truly the most important.
From an athletic perspective, there is no greater performance enhancer out there than sleep. It is the only form of training that can be done once and have a noticeable impact the next day. Unlike most training, results are immediate. Nearly every measurable attribute such as speed, strength, power, endurance, accuracy, and reaction time are all favorably improved with proper sleep. Conversely, nearly all of them decline without it. From a mental standpoint, concentration, focus, critical thinking, learning, and creativity are also greatly improved with restorative sleep. These attributes working near capacity offer the best possible environment for athletes to train and compete collectively.
In terms of recovery, sleep is without a doubt the most important ingredient. Restorative sleep decreases the overall level of stress (physical, mental, emotional, academic) that student-athletes face, turbocharges the immune system to protect against illness and infection, decreases inflammation throughout the body, and helps to promote an anabolic hormonal environment optimal for recovery. All these factors working together are a major advantage and would allow a student-athlete the chance to recover regularly from the stresses of their sport. Although other forms of recovery are useful, such as breathing, ice baths, and soft-tissue work, they are of little value without getting adequate sleep.
Perhaps most importantly, adequate sleep has the potential to keep athletes where they want to be most: on the field, court, or track. Injuries are, of course, a part of sports and will never be eliminated, but regular restorative sleep provides some of the best protection available against losing time to injury. According to a recent study, individuals that sleep only seven hours per night have a 24% higher risk of musculoskeletal injury per year than those that average 8 hours of sleep per night. Those that average six hours per night fare even worse, with a 53% higher injury rate than their eight hours counterparts. While movement screens, prehab, mobility work, and individualized programs are all important, nothing is more effective at tipping the balances of injury risk more positively in one’s favor than effective sleep.
Unfortunately, 73% of teenagers nationwide fail to attain the 8-10 hours of sleep per night recommended by the National Sleep Foundation, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Where I live in California’s bay area, it is even worse, with nearly 76% failing to do so. Without a doubt, improving sleep habits is truly the low-hanging fruit that could immediately impact a student-athlete’s life.
Although it may be easy to point out the problem and identify what the goal should be in terms of sleep and high-school athletes, implementing a solution will be difficult if the context of our time is not understood. Whether Americans truly averaged over 9 hours of sleep at the turn of the 20th Century is debatable, but what is seemingly not in question is that it is probably the most challenging time in history to get quality sleep. Most people seem to give little thought to the idea that we as a species are not designed to sleep optimally in the world we find ourselves inhabiting. Like animals, we are designed to receive and respond to the natural cues of darkness and light from the environment around us. But with bright screens encroaching their way into every moment of our lives, the lack of true darkness existing in many places, and an ability to decide night and day with the flip of a switch, we are becoming more disconnected by the day from the rhythms we have been on for millions of years. It’s no wonder that many sectors of society are struggling to get proper sleep.
Today, most student-athletes have grown up with these challenges as everyday parts of their lives, so they are especially ill-equipped to understand the ramifications. It’s simply all they know. Most of them are engaging in an unknowing but exceptionally detrimental form of self-sabotage when it comes to sleep and could benefit greatly from basic education and perspective in this area. Although the modern world and its challenges are here to stay, student-athletes can still enjoy the benefits of restorative sleep. Therefore, I offer the following tips to help them get there in these challenging times:
Dark Room is Key
Artificial light from both indoor and outdoor sources can very easily disrupt our ability to achieve quality sleep. In major urban areas, so much artificial light is produced at night that true darkness is never really experienced, even with the lights off. By installing a blackout shade or dark sheet over the windows, the sleep environment will be as dark as possible, shielding a student-athlete from light pollution. To protect against indoor threats, doors need to be well sealed and not leaking light into the room. If it has a high floor clearance, it may be good to add a threshold piece or even lay a towel down to block out the light. Go a step further and eliminate all blinking lights, turn off all devices, and even buy alarm clocks that only light up when you touch them. All these steps will allow you to feel darkness more fully and build up the necessary melatonin in the brain to induce sleep.
Athletes and people in general often reach for caffeine when they feel fatigued or need a boost. High school athletes sometimes consume caffeine to stay up and study. Since caffeine is a mental stimulant that takes about 7 hours or more to completely work its way out of your body, it is a poor choice in the afternoon or evening. It can easily keep you alert and awake when you need to wind down and sleep. Therefore, be sure to consume all caffeine during the day before 3:00 pm. If you really want to take your sleep to the next level, or are particularly sensitive to caffeine, make it 12:00 pm.
Noise is especially disruptive to sleep and living in a city or a large urban area can often be challenging in this respect. One effective strategy to reduce noise is to start with those closest to you. Talking to family members about establishing designated quiet hours can go a long way towards creating the environment necessary for sleep. If you live in a situation where you cannot completely control external noise, work to find a way to cancel out its effects. Earplugs are a simple and easy choice, but a more effective strategy is to opt for a white noise maker. White noise is a repetitive, consistent sound that blocks out other sounds, and there are several cheap and effective options to purchase. There are also plenty of great apps available on your smartphone, such as Calm or Headspace, that are effective and easy to use.
Taking short 30-90 minute naps during the middle of the day can be an effective strategy to help recover and accrue more sleep during the week. However, the timing of naps is critical to coincide with circadian rhythms (usually 11:00 am-1:00 pm), and controlling one’s schedule is important. Since high school athletes are usually on strict schedules throughout the day and cannot control their environment, it is not a great strategy for them. The late afternoon that student-athletes may have available to nap is a window of time that is often more harmful than helpful. It is far too close to their regular bedtime and could disrupt their normal rhythms to the point that their main block of sleep at night is compromised. Consequently, the best strategy for teenage student-athletes would be to skip the naps and get all their sleep in one 8-10 hour dose.
Turn Off Your Phone
Most of the technology we use will stimulate us mentally, keeping us awake and preventing us from feeling fatigued and the need for sleep as fully as possible. In addition, the phones, tablets, and computers we use are artificially bright, which further messes with our sleep by telling our brains it’s daylight instead of night. In those last 30-60 minutes of the day, do something low-key and relaxing, such as reading a book, deep breathing, light stretching, journaling, or laying out your clothes for the next day. Doing these types of screen-free activities each night is a great way to wind down and signal your body that it’s time to rest.
Erratic and inconsistent sleep schedules make it difficult for anyone to feel normal or rested. Dramatic differences in sleep and wake cycles from night to night are a lot like being jet-lagged. The body is out of synch and cannot fall into a consistent flow because the demands keep changing. Setting and sticking to regular bed and wake times are important, even on the weekends, as sleeping in usually only exacerbates the problem. Resting and waking consistently helps establish regular sleep rhythms, which is ultimately the most important factor in getting the best sleep possible.
Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., Hazen, N., Herman, J., Katz, E. S., Kheirandish-Gozal, L., Neubauer, D. N., O’Donnell, A. E., Ohayon, M., Peever, J., Rawding, R., Sachdeva, R. C., Setters, B., Vitiello, M. V., Ware, J. C., & Adams Hillard, P. J. (2015). National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health, 1(1), 40–43.
Paruthi, S., Brooks, L. J., D’Ambrosio, C., Hall, W. A., Kotagal, S., Lloyd, R. M., Malow, B. A., Maski, K., Nichols, C., Quan, S. F., Rosen, C. L., Troester, M. M., & Wise, M. S. (2016). Recommended Amount of Sleep for Pediatric Populations: A Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 12(6), 785–786.
Grier, T., Dinkeloo, E., Reynolds, M., & Jones, B. (2020). Sleep Duration and Musculoskeletal Injury Incidence in Physically Active Men and Women: A study of U.S. Army Special Operation Forces Soldiers. Sleep Health, 6(3), 344-349.
Wheaton, AG, Jones, SE., Cooper, AC., Croft, JB. (2018). Short Sleep Duration Among Middle School and High School Students-United States. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 67(3), 85-90.