Children's Hospital Colorado

Sleep for Student Athletes Impacts Performance

A football player sits on a bench with a coach and athletic trainer.

Teens need about nine to 10 hours of sleep every night, and about 80% of them don't get it. In fact, half of teenagers report feeling tired all day. Due to their academic and athletic workloads, young athletes are at increased risk.

"Sleep impacts everything from health to development," says Aaron Provance, MD, Medical Director of the Sports Medicine Center at Children's Hospital Colorado. "And it's especially important for young athletes, because it's key to performance on the field."

To help young athletes get a good night's rest — and play their best — Dr. Provance offers five reasons sleep is key to a good game, plus five ways to sleep better.

Five ways sleep impacts performance

  1. Accuracy and reaction times
    • In one study, increased sleep among college men's basketball players improved their free throw and 3-point accuracy by 9%, and produced better sprint speed and reaction times.
    • Another study of college women's tennis players showed increased sleep led to better scores in matches and improved hitting accuracy of 42%.
    • Yet another study showed a 17% improvement in reaction times off the start block for swimmers.
  2. Endurance
    • Decreased sleep makes athletes feel exhausted sooner and increases athletes' perception of the effort it takes to perform.
    • Good sleep improves glucose metabolism, which leads to increased energy and a better mood.
  3. Motor memory and cognitive function
    • Nine to 10 hours of continuous sleep helps with muscle memory. Without it, the sport-specific muscle techniques athletes spend hours training for won't stick as well.
    • Increased sleep results in better reaction times, coordination and split-second decision-making.
  4. Injury risk and recovery
    • Human growth hormone is important for tissue repair, as well as muscle and bone development — and it's only secreted during deep sleep.
    • Cortisol, the "stress hormone," is hard on the body, and sleep decreases it. The result: less frequent illness and faster recovery.
  5. Overall performance
    • Good sleep is important, even for professionals. One sleep study of Major League baseball players showed significantly better strike zone judgment in well rested players.
    • A similar study measured players' sleepiness and found that, while 72% of well-rested players tested were still playing professionally three years later, only 14% of sleep-deprived players were still in the league.

Five strategies to improve sleep

  1. Good sleep habits
    • Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day.
    • Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet environment.
    • The blue light that screens emit stifles production of melatonin (the hormone that puts you to sleep), so avoid phones, movies, video games and television an hour before bed.
    • Do a quiet, relaxing activity for 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
    • Caffeine can stay in your system for up to 12 hours, so avoid it after 2 p.m.
    • Nicotine is an even stronger stimulant — avoid it altogether.
  2. Consistent practice times
    • As much as possible, practice at the same time each day.
    • Coaches should avoid early morning or late evening practices.
    • It's better to skip early morning practice than to lose quality sleep.
  3. Adjustment for travel
    • It's easier to travel east than west due to our natural circadian rhythms.
    • If possible, allow one day for adjustment per time zone crossed.
    • Adjust practice times before travel if possible.
  4. Keeping it natural
    • Avoid prescription sleep medications. They can cause dependence, and there's a lack of good evidence to show they benefit young athletes.
    • There is no good evidence that antihistamines or melatonin improve sleep and athletic performance, either.
  5. Napping as a last resort
    • Napping is not a good substitute for a good night's sleep.
    • When a good night's sleep isn't possible, naps can help with sleepiness, though the effect of napping on athletic performance is unclear.
    • Napping for 20 minutes or two hours will typically result in better rest and less post-nap grogginess due to the natural duration of sleep cycles.

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