Wake up call for collegiate athlete sleep
Sleep is simply not valued in our 24/7 society. We treat it as a luxury and it’s a necessity. If you sleep longer and better, you can be a better athlete overnight
Dr. James B. Maas
More than 40 members of an NCAA Interassociation Task Force on Sleep and Wellness gathered in Indianapolis in May 2017, to review the current data and discuss research related to the sleep health of student-athletes. The goal was to develop recommendations to inform best practices and educational resources in support of the sleep wellness of college athletes. In the published open access paper Wake up call for collegiate athlete sleep: narrative review and consensus recommendations the findings and recommendations of this group are outlined. In this weeks’ blog we summarize the main findings of this research.
Insufficient sleep and/or poor sleep quality can cause issues which affect physical and academic performance, cognitive function, recovery from training and injury and your mental and cardiometabolic health. The busy life of the student athlete is very often not compatible with the time requirements of restorative sleep. Travel, academic and athletic timetables, team meetings, assignments and exams can all affect consistency in optimal sleep hygiene for the student athlete.
Barriers to Sleep Hygiene for Student Athletes
Student athletes face many barriers which prevent them receiving optimal sleep duration and quality such as:-
- Time spent on athletics: A 2015 survey found that student athletes spend 27 – 41 hours per week on athletics
- Academic requirements/assignments
- Extracurricular activities/socializing
- Caffeine, Alcohol, Marijuana, other drugs, non-medical use prescription
- drugs which can interfere with sleep
- Use of electronic devices in the evening
- Student housing environments are often not conducive to optimal sleep
The review concentrated on four main topics that are central to collegiate student athletes.
- Sleep patterns and disorders
- Sleep and Optimal functioning
- Screen, tracking and assessment of athlete sleep
- Interventions to improve sleep
Sleep patterns and disorders
From the research that is available on sleep in the student athlete cohort it is obvious that the majority of student-athletes do not get optimal sleep duration and quality. The American College Health Association’s annual National College Health Assessment (NCHA) surveyed 14,134 collegiate athletes at NCAA member institutions. Of these 61% reported daytime fatigue at least three or more days in the past week, and others reported consistent or more serious sleep difficulties.
Other studies show similar statistics with high percentages of student athletes experiencing poor sleep quality, daytime sleepiness and reduced sleep duration.
Sleep and optimal functioning
Insufficient sleep and sleep disturbances have been shown to affect the following:-
- Athletic Performance: Poor sleep is associated with delayed reaction time, increased perceived effort, fatigue, and mood disturbances. On the flip side studies have shown that serving accuracy, shooting accuracy and reaction time significantly improve in collegiate tennis and basketball players following a period of sleep extension. The review points out that the relationship between training loads, sleep and performance is complex and poorly understood and that optimizing performance in athletes will require individualized approaches and further research.
- Injury/Illness: Better sleep may reduce the risk of both illness and injury in student athletes. Several studies show that optimal sleep is associated with lower odds of musculoskeletal injuries and college students tend to report more medical illnesses when their sleep habits are poor.
- Mental Health: In the 2018 American College Health Association (ACHA)-NCHA dataset, collegiate athletes with self-identified sleep problems were more than twice as likely to report feeling overwhelming anxiety, being so depressed it was difficult to function and considering suicide in the last 30 days compared with athletes who did not indicate sleep disturbance. When comparing students with depression and anxiety against healthy college students, better sleep is associated with improved mental wellness. The student athlete population are vulnerable to a range of mental health issues and are from a ‘culture of silence’ where they often feel weak if admitting to issues/problems.
- Academic Performance: As sleep deprivation can impair cognitive performance it is no surprise that better sleep is associated with greater academic success. The review referenced research that showed on average, each additional day per week a student reported experiencing sleep problems raised the probability of dropping a course by 10%
Screen, tracking and assessment of athlete sleep
Sleep is typically measured either subjectively – through questionnaires, or objectively through devices used at home or testing in a sleep laboratory. It is often useful to get a sleep history from your athletes which includes questions relating to
- Bedtimes, wake times and napping
- Sleep quality – difficulty getting to sleep, feeling tired during the day, feeling good when you wake up
- Sleep disorders
- Medication and drug use
- Mental health status
- Use of electronic devices and exposure to light near bedtime
Consumer home technologies for measuring sleep are becoming more accessible to the general population and they can help the individual become more self aware about their sleep patterns.
Interventions to Improve Sleep
Interventions on how to improve sleep and education on its importance are particularly relevant for student athletes who often suffer poor sleep hygiene due to time demands on them from both an academic and athletic standpoint. In Recovery practices in Division 1 collegiate athletes in North America, only a quarter of athletes both believed in, and used sleep for recovery. Common interventions include
- Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia
- Sleep Hygiene Education
- Education in relaxation and Mindfulness
There is minimal research available on non-pharmacological sleep interventions among student athletes and the research that is there is limited due to small sample sizes and other factors. Some collegiate athletics departments have modified their facilities or added programmes to improve sleep such as creation of napping rooms and sleep monitoring systems but it is yet to be seen how these strategies will improve collegiate athlete sleep.
An initial 16 recommendations were made by the group but after consideration and consensus on their feasibility in the college environment the following 5 recommendations were made:-
Sleep is often overlooked as a factor that can affect a student athletes’ performance and recovery despite being critical for this process. More research is needed but the overriding message from this review is that sleep is an important priority and more education is recommended for both coaches and athletes to help raise awareness and take steps to promote collegiate athlete well-being and performance through sleep.
Thanks to Eimear Larkin for collaborating on this blog. Eimear is currently working with us for her 12 week placement for her DKIT Business and Management studies.
Through our innovative app and intelligent analytics, we are bringing athlete well-being to the forefront of training and performance. Metrifit is an excellent tool to monitor, evaluate and make the right decisions for your athlete’s wellbeing and performance on a day to day basis and to address an issue or potential issue in real time. To find out more visit our Metrifit Product Overview page or contact at for a free demo.
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