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Snooze or lose: sleep your way to athletic domination

Published on: March 01, 2007

It's easy to spot a sleep-deprived kid in the classroom: just look for the hoodie-covered head on the desk, with an arm for a pillow. On the playing field, though, the signs aren't so obvious -- especially for 11-14-year olds, who are bravely making the transition between childhood and adolescence, often on too little sleep. Parents, coaches and players themselves are sometimes quick to blame poor athletic performance on lack of conditioning or too little practice. Recently, though, doctors and researchers have been talking up the importance of a good night's sleep for peak athletic performance. Often, an under-performing athlete needs an extra hour of sleep, not an extra lap around the track.

It might be difficult to convince your sports-loving son or daughter to cut back on practice in favor of more sleep. "No longer is little Johnny playing just one sport and then having the next quarter off to heal and grow," says Dr. Wuaca Luna of Valley Medical Center in Renton and team physician for Rainier Beach High School. "Kids are on two or three teams, participating every day, and not getting a chance to recover."

The cost of 'sleep debt'

That translates to lack of performance on the playing field. The National Sleep Foundation lists several sports-related problems associated with lack of sleep: decreased motor function, delayed reaction time and sluggish cardiovascular performance. Indeed, sleep debt affects nearly every aspect of sport, from the mental to the physical game. Strategizing and remembering plays becomes more difficult as brain activity slows. Instructions from shouting coaches become difficult to decipher. And players might find themselves more easily agitated by jeering opponents, coaches or parents. "The first thing affected is mood," says Dr. Wynne Chen of the Sleep Center at Valley Medical Center, who works with children with sleeping disorders, "even before cognition and reflexes."

And the effects of sleep debt are not all muscular and mental. A recent study at the University of Chicago Medical Center suggests sleep-deficient athletes metabolize glucose less efficiently. Your soccer star might inhale a bowl of rigatoni the night before a big game, but if that delays an early bedtime, that carbo boost might be for naught.

The struggle for sleep

According to Chen, 11-14-year-old athletes wanting the recommended 9-10 hours of sleep fight a losing battle; factors both biological and environmental conspire against them. As kids enter adolescence, they undergo a shift in their circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells us when we're sleepy. "At this age, circadian rhythm shifts ahead two hours, so if you used to get tired around 9:00 p.m., it shifts to 11:00 p.m. or later." You might not believe your 12-year old who says she's not ready for bed after "Grey's Anatomy," but it's probably true. The hurt comes when she has to wake up for school in just seven hours, netting only a fraction of the sleep she needs.

Parents may insist on a relatively early bedtime, but chances are "bedtime" to you is merely your little night owl's gateway to an iPod-cranking or text-messaging netherworld. Gone are the days when kids read books by flashlight under the covers. Nowadays, it's all about electronic devices that stimulate rather than soothe. "I've caught (my son) at 11:00 p.m. texting his friends or listening to music," says David Rothgeb, a track and cross-country coach at Northlake Middle School in Lake Stevens. "If he has a basketball game the next day, he's just a zombie. No reflexes, no coordination. Normally he's quick on the court and working hard. But if he's had a late night, he's a totally different player."

So how can parents improve those sleep habits so their young athlete can stop eating dust? The first step is to talk with your child. "Kids don't always communicate that they are sleepy," says Chen. Luna agrees, "I say to parents: know your kids, know when too much is too much. The coaches aren't going to make that decision."

In the end, the best solution is consistency: a fixed bedtime and wake time, even on weekends. Limit evening computer time, which stimulates the brain. And remind your future all-American that additional sleep does not cut into training time. It is training time.

Derek Blaylock
lives in Seattle with his wife and two young sons.

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