How Much Sleep Does Your Student-Athlete Get Per Night?

By Frank Bartscheck | Posted 7/8/2016

Quick, think of the most important daily routine that effects a high school athlete’s performance. 

Eating quality nutrition? Very important. Working out? Absolutely. Practicing hard? Always. Staying hydrated? Most definitely.

How many of you thought of sleeping? My guess is that not too many of you went with sleeping as a first choice. Yet sleep is quite possibly the most critical aspect that directly impacts a high school athlete’s health and performance.

The National Institute of Health recommends that teenagers sleep an average of nine to 10 hours each night. That’s a difficult task for today’s teens. Many teenage athletes have their time stretched thin amid going to school, studying for exams, completing homework, attending practice, engaging in individual training and socializing with family and friends.

It can be difficult for teenagers to set aside the time for sleep.

Modern reality encourages sleep deprivation

As a result, it is not surprising that many teenagers do not get enough sleep. Parents and role models with whom teenagers interact on a daily basis are often sleep deprived as well. Accordingly, teenagers may model these behaviors.

The seemingly simple issue of sleeping has become so serious even the Centers for Disease Control sounded the alarm with a publication titled “Insufficient Sleep is a Public Health Concern.”

Many Americans accept being tired as the inevitable price of modern reality. According to the CDC report this may actually be the case: “Sleep insufficiency may be caused by broad scale societal factors such as round-the-clock access to technology and work schedules.” In fact, according to a recent Gallup survey, modern Americans sleep 1.2 hours less each night than Americans living in the 1940s. Accordingly, modern America adults are providing a bad example of proper sleeping habits to its youth.

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The sleep deprivation trend is alarming because sleep is even more important for a growing teenage body. In addition to the myriad of commitments, teenagers are constantly growing and frequently at a tremendously fast rate. The rapid growth requires a tremendous amount of energy, and often we only associate energy creation with eating and overlook the importance of sleep.

When I hit my growth spurt, I remember family members repeatedly asking me some variation of the following: “You seem to get bigger every time I see you. What are your parents feeding you?” While quality nutrition is a critical factor in growth and athletic performance, what was not understood back then was the importance of a good night’s sleep. Maybe today the question would include asking how much sleep I was getting.

Why sleep is important for teenage athletes

Getting the proper amount of sleep is important for teenage athletes for a variety of reasons. Shockingly, even moderate sleep deprivation can be the equivalent to drinking alcohol. According to Harvard Medical School’s website, “being awake for 22 hours straight can slow your reaction time more than four drinks can.”Accordingly, teenage athletes cannot expect to succeed in athletic endeavors when they are sleep deprived.

More worryingly for teenage night owls, sleep deprivation is cumulative. A teenager who gets seven hours of sleep per school night, which is two to three hours less than the NIH recommendation, will attain at least a 10-hour sleep debt by the end of each week.

Lack of sleep in high school athletes is directly correlated to increased instances of injury. Research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics identified the troubling connection, “hours of sleep per night was significantly associated with a decreased likelihood of injury.” More specifically, high school athletes who consistently slept at least eight hours reduced the potential of injury by 68 percent as opposed to those who consistently slept less than eight hours per night. 

These studies are not the only evidence of the importance of sleep. Even professional athletes recognize the value of a good night’s sleep. A 2013 Huffington Post article examined 17 well-known professional athletes and their individual sleeping habits. The majority indicated they sleep either 8 or 10-plus hours per night respectively. Many specified that they also enjoy napping before a game.

Recently crowned NBA Champion Lebron James, the unanimously Finals MVP, revealed he sleeps 12 hours a night. Ultimately, these numbers indicate that the amount of sleep an athlete consistently gets is closely related to athletic performance.

American teenagers are sleep deprived

Unfortunately, even with this information readily available, many U.S. teenagers still do not get enough sleep. An article on Stanford Medicine’s website indicates that: “Studies show that both adults and teens … are becoming more sleep deprived, the problem is most acute among teens.” The founder of The Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, Dr. William Dement, indicated that sleep deprivation among high school students is a critical issue that needs to be addressed. “It’s a huge problem. What it means is that nobody performs at the level they could perform,” whether in class or on the football field.

The study found that 87 percent of U.S. teenagers get less than the recommended nine hours of sleep on school nights and 62 percent get less than eight hours of sleep on school nights. The research identified that sleep deprived teenagers are more likely, “to have sleep consequences, such as feeling cranky or irritable, feeling too tired to do exercise or other physical activities, and to have trouble getting along with their family.”

Essentially, getting enough sleep – along with physical conditioning, proper hydration and quality nutrition – is a critical component in a teenage athlete’s health and performance.

What can you do?

So what can you do as a parent, family member or coach? The simplest solution to attaining this goal is to set a bedtime, particularly one before 10 p.m. The 2006 National Sleep Foundation study found that those who engage in having a set bedtime “more often can say ‘I had a good night’s sleep,’ and are less likely to experience problems related to sleepiness during their daily activities.”

Another option is to measure the hours of sleep your teenager gets on a consistent basis. You can help your teenager identify poor sleeping patterns by cataloging the amount of their sleep or lack thereof. Remember, the first step to overcoming any problem is to identify it.