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By: Brendan Duffy on February 18th, 2016

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Addressing Sleep Needs Among Athletes

Sleep Medicine | Sleep Technologist Advice


Is sleep finally getting the attention it deserves among athletes?

Recently at the NCAA annual meeting, Dr Brian Hainline, the medical chief for the NCAA addressed mental health as a top concern for the many NCAA athletes across the country that compete in many sports, at many levels.  One of the many areas being targeted is attention to the sleep needs and challenges that athletes encounter as they work through practices, workouts, games, classes, and homework assignments.  Sleep has a big impact on how one’s mental health is maintained.

As a matter of fact, sleep has its own separate chapter in the recent 120 page free online guide that can be downloaded by NCAA players and staff. The download is entitled Mind, Body, and Sport and the chapter on sleep, written by Michael Grander of the University of Pennsylvania, briefly explains the stages of sleep, common sleep issues, and some statistics on sleep in America.

Poor Sleep Linked to Mood Disorders

As difficult as it is for ‘regular folks’ to find time for quality sleep, the rigors of being a student –athlete make a difficult situation even more tenuous.  And when an athlete starts to become sleep deprived, it is not only apparent in their school and game time performance, but also in their attitude, temperament, and ability to handle stress.   What is not often discussed is the close relationship between sleep and mood.   Most of us have seen episodes of “out of character” behavior and wonder what precipitated it.  In some cases it probably involves some element of sleep deprivation in a person who is not “thinking straight”.

Poor sleep can cause, or increase irritability and stress.  A constant lack of quality sleep or long standing insomnia can increase the risk of developing a mood disorder.  These mood disorders can develop into full-fledged anxiety and/or depressive conditions and may contribute to other psychiatric disorders.  Once an athlete develops anxiety, this can compound the pressure caused by an inability to sleep or a lack of sleep due to their perceived pressures to get everything done.  School work, practices, clinical work, family commitments, and social life all create a time management monster that can steal sleep time and create anxiety for an athlete.

Sometimes, difficulty sleeping is one of the first signs of depression.  As a matter of fact, one study reports that sleep complaints are reported by more than 80% of patients with mood disorders!   Long-term insomnia may develop and can be a great risk factor for anxiety and a troubled mental landscape.  

Sometimes psychiatric disorders are treated long before a person is sent for a sleep evaluation at a sleep disorder center.  This poses additional problems that need to be investigated as some psychiatric or anxiety medications may change or interfere with sleep patterns.

Athletes Need About 10 Hours of Sleep

Athletes need about 10 hours of sleep but rarely get that amount.  This is due to the time demands on them, as well as a need for better information and sleep time management skills. Athletes who are playing or practicing while sleep deprived may have a bad performance in a game.  Sleep deprivation can also cause susceptibility to injury and this could lead to depression as their team continues on competing without them.  

Another problem occurs when athletes lay awake replaying the whole game in their heads, or fret about assignments for class that are due, rather than refreshing their mind and body with quality sleep.  Athletes should be striving for 9 to 10 hours of sleep per night on average, but this is rarely the case.  A lack of sleep has many negative implications; it impacts memory, emotions and regulation of appetite.  It also degrades our immune system.

The last few hours of a night’s sleep are extremely important for athletes as this is when muscle memory is solidified from all of the day’s training or game plays.  If this information is not solidified in memory, one might play as if they never practiced before - or they could be a split second off in their timing, which could cause errors, or accidents!

As we go forward and work with student athletes to make sure they are of sound and healthy mind, we must pay attention to that one third of their life that has a great impact on the other two-thirds of their life… a refreshing and full night’s sleep.  Several studies have concluded that poor sleep can lead to severe depression.  It is imperative that athletes, their coaches and trainers, and the community remain vigilant to signs of sleep deprivation if they hope to prevent mood disorders, accidents, and injuries!

It is encouraging to see that the University of Tennessee football team and the Florida State University women’s soccer team include sleep as a vital part of their training regimen.  The Vol’s had their best season in several years’ … and the FSU women’s soccer team had yet another stellar campaign.  Let’s hope other NCAA colleges join these two teams who seem to have discovered that sleep can be a very important competitive weapon! … And an important component of good mental health!

Sleep Well!

Compete Better!

To read more of Brendan's articles click here.