Pound the Pillow
Over the summer, I read an enjoyable motivational book about developing grit and learning successful life skills. I recommend it; however, being a sleep/sports performance enthusiast, I did have some angst as to how sleep was portrayed in this story — especially as athletes start a brand new high school season.
The book, Pound the Stone: 7 Lessons to Develop Grit on the Path to Mastery by Josh Medcalf, depicts a high school basketball star named Jason excelling on and off the court — partly by getting up extremely early to practice basketball at 6 a.m. and partly by going nonstop until late at night. The book is fictional, and as we learn more about sleep and sports, the sleep habits displayed by Jason that led to his success appear to also be fictional and unrealistic over the long season. Unless Jason was going to bed at roughly 8 p.m., he would not be meeting the stated amount of sleep needed for his age group — about nine hours per night.
Most teens cannot sleep that early as their biology causes a shift known as delayed sleep phase. In the book, there are descriptions of Jason feeling sleepy in class leading me to believe he wasn’t getting sufficient sleep. Even if tired, teens have difficulty falling asleep before 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. This later bedtime, coupled with early school start times, reduces the window of opportunity to get sufficient sleep and can cause a mismatch for athletes trying to train and recover efficiently.
Many athletes, coaches, school administrators and parents (and authors) believe this grind of early morning practice is a way to achieve success on the court or playing fields. This has been the norm for years and is understandable as the science of sleep and athletic performance has only become known in earnest over the last 10 years or so.
Sleep science now indicates athletes that are sleep deprived are often a recipe for poor performance, poor recovery and an increased chance of an injury that may well derail an athlete’s season or career. It also may hamper any chances of playing on the collegiate or professional level or attaining a coveted scholarship.
The question being asked now is: High school athletes, and high school students in general, are some of the most sleep deprived people. Are you (or your patient) in this group? If you are a high school athlete and find yourself sleeping in until noon on the weekends, or on those wonderful, glorious, last-minute snow days, it’s a sign you are sleep deprived. Similarly, if you are a sleep technologist, is your patient showing these symptoms?
These are some of the ways athletes may be defeated by poor sleep. By improving these factors in one’s “sleep game,” improvements can and will be seen in one’s “court game.”
- Weight management: When you are not sleeping well, you have difficulty controlling your weight. Even if you lose weight, it is often lean muscle rather than fat. When sleep deprived, the body retains fat and decreases muscle, nullifying workouts.
- Pain management: Lack of sleep increases one’s sensitivity to pain and increases the use of pain medications. It’s also a bidirectional loop as pain sensitivity can cause us to wake from sleep. If you are more sensitive to pain, you may also feel depressed about how slow your recovery time takes.
- Immune system: Sleep deprivation blunts your immune system, and athletes are at a greater risk of catching colds and infections. It also decreases the effectiveness of any vaccine or flu shot immunity, which is not something you want to happen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. You want a robust “immunity defense.”
- Reaction time: Sleep deprived athletes’ reaction times can be significantly delayed. This can lead to missed passes, missed defensive stops, missed interceptions and more. It also can lead to concussions if a player does not react in time to an impending threat or collision during a game. And players with sleep deprivation symptoms tend to take longer to recover once they are concussed.
- Muscle memory: Sleep appears to improve muscle memory, especially the night of sleep right after practicing a new skill or method. It appears we replay the skill over and over again in our sleep and can perhaps get better with the skill to some degree without physically practicing it.
- Recovery: Workouts and games break down the body. Sleep allows the body to repair, restore and reenergize itself. Without adequate sleep time, athletes risk further tears and injury. During sleep, important hormones are released such as growth hormone and testosterone. Without proper sleep, the body is deprived of the opportunity to recover from the “daily grind.”
- Emotional health: Sleep is crucial for resetting one’s emotional and mental wellbeing each day. Teens experience early morning rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which is crucial in their emotional reset as REM sleep impacts mood, health and learning. Early morning practices, as well as unhealthy school start times, interfere with this daily emotional reset, and constant sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on emotional regulation.
These are just a few of the reasons why sleep should be respected. It is not a sign of weakness, rather, sleep is a sign of knowing what elite athletes have already discovered and what they use to have great, long and successful athletic careers.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Tom Brady (sleeps nine hours each night), LeBron James (sleeps up to 12 hours each night), Roger Federer (sleeps 11 hours each night) and Usain Bolt (sleeps eight to 10 hours each night).
Sleep like a champion! Have a great season! And pound the pillow!