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Alaska Sleep Education Center

Student Athletes and Sleep

Posted by Julia Higginson on Mar 13, 2018 6:31:00 AM

Have you ever heard the young athletes say they eat, sleep, and breath their sport? Well, it turns out that sleeping really is an important part of training for any young athlete.

Young athletes tend to focus on nutrition and training schedules, yet sleep may be more critical to their overall health and performance.

Teenagers already have an erratic sleep schedule from school demands, after school activities, and social interactions. Lack of sleep can pose an extra challenge for young athletes. Quality sleep can give your student athlete a boost in performance as well as setting the foundation for healthy sleep in their coming years.   

Changing sleep patterns

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Sleep is an essential to a teen’s growth and development. Young athletes go through a change in sleep patterns as they go through puberty.

The biggest change teenagers undergo is a shift in their circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythm is basically your 24-hour internal clock that helps you know when to sleep and when to be awake. Your child’s circadian rhythm usually alerts them to be sleepy around 8 pm. When puberty hits, the rhythm shifts a couple of hours latter. Teens’ bodies tell them to go to bed around 10 pm.

The natural shift in a teen’s circadian rhythm is referred to as sleep phase delay. Has your teen suddenly struggled to fall asleep at your set bedtime? You might be thinking your teen is suffering insomnia when the truth is their childhood bedtime no longer fits their changed circadian rhythm.

As a result, most teens need a latter bedtime, yet they still need to fit in at least nine hours of sleep.

Young athletes find that early morning training, after-school practices, and late nights traveling for games coupled with eight hours of school and the need to study for tests and do homework leave then with little time to relax. Teens are attempting to balance school, sports, family, friends in a way that makes their schedules over full.

The pressure to excel in both sports and academics can lead a young athlete to choose to sacrifice sleep so they can squeeze in more time training and more time studying.

Sleep to repair damage

Skipping sleep is one of the worst mistakes any young athlete can make.  Sleep is needed by young athletes, perhaps even more than their non-athletic peers.

The right amount of quality sleep helps young bodies to repair the damage sustained during practice or games. While sleeping, the body works hard to repair all of the minor wear and tear that comes from running and exercising. A young athlete’s body is pushed hard during sports practices; sleep helps the muscles and joints recharge for practice the next day.

Student athletes also push their minds while they are at school and while studying. Sleep allows young minds to absorb all the information obtained during the day. Without sleep, everything learned will have difficulty in turning into long term memory.

Student athletes who try to study while fatigued will find that is more difficult to remember the facts that they need to succeed.

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Sleep to reduce injuries

Student athletes have a greater chance of injuries while playing sports when they are tired. Think about when you are at your sleepiest. Your brain has difficulty in getting the message to your muscles to move in a certain way. Fatigue also reduces your reaction time.

Add in sports where reaction time is paramount and it makes sense why sleep can put young athletes at risk for injuries. When you are tired you can’t react as quickly to a ball coming at your face. In fact, moderate to severe sleep deprivation can have the same effect on your body as drinking alcohol.

Harvard Medical School states “being awake for 22 hours straight can slow your reaction time more than four drinks can.” Letting our teens play sports drunk would seem ludicrous, yet young athletes can’t succeed in sports when they are sleep deprived.

Sleep also helps young athletes build muscle strength. While you sleep, your body releases a growth hormone that helps your teen develop muscle. Sleep deprivation can lead to a decrease in the amount of growth hormone your young athlete is exposed to. Weak muscles can lead to increase in accidental injury as well as injury from repetitive motion.

Sleep to reduce stress

A lot of student athletes find that stress comes as part of the sports package. The pressure to win and to preform can lead young athletes to experience higher levels of stress and worry. Sleep can help reduce levels of stress by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Sleep also helps you think more clearly so problems don’t seem too overwhelming. The energy and focus that comes from sleep can help young athletes overcome the stress that comes with sports.

Sleep also helps to reduce junk food cravings that seem to accompany feeling of being stressed. Lack of sleep can cause your teen to crave unhealthy food, which can in turn lead to weight problems.

Symptoms of sleep deprivation

Your teen’s sleep issues could be related to their grueling schedule or it could be related to a medical sleep disorder. If you are worried your teen might be suffering from more than an over packed schedule, make an appointment with their physician so you can get to the bottom of their issues as soon as possible.

Signs and symptoms of sleep deprivation in teens include:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Mentally drifting off in class
  • Shortened attention span
  • Memory impairment
  • Poor decision making
  • Lack of enthusiasm
  • Moodiness and aggression
  • Depression
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Slower physical reflexes
  • Clumsiness, which may result in physical injuries
  • Reduced sporting performance
  • Reduced academic performance
  • Increased number of missed days from school because of tiredness
  • Truancy

Changing habits

The first step to helping your young athlete succeed in both sports and school is to help them get the right amount of sleep. More worrisome than the occasional late night is an accumulation of sleep deprivation.

Teens need to get between nine to ten hours of quality sleep each night. If your teen is skipping out on two to three hours each night, they will be in debt ten hours of sleep by the end of the week.

A high sleep debt can lead to more injuries and poor performance in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that the likelihood of injury decreases the more sleep your teen can get each night. 

One of the best ways to help teens sleep is to set a good example yourself. Are you practicing good sleep hygiene habits and making sleep a priority in your own life?

A lot of adults are neglecting their own sleep by having overscheduled and hectic lifestyles. Are you using caffeine to stay awake or sleep aids to fall asleep? Do you choose to stay up a few extra hours to fit in extra work? You could be unconsciously sending a message to your teen that squeezing in more productivity is more important than getting sleep. 

Teach your teen good sleep hygiene habits in addition to teaching them the importance of sleep. Sleep is just as important if not more important than the time put into to practice.

If you concerned about your young athlete’s sleep habits, give us a call today to see how we can help them not only win on the field but in life too. Alaska Sleep Clinic and our Pediatric Medical Director, Harry Yuan are here to help your young adult with any sleep issues he/she may be facing.

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Topics: Pediatrics, sports, losing sleep

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