A 5 A.M. wake-up call was enough to elicit groans from everyone on my college cross-country team. Jumping into COLD water to do some pool running was my coach’s idea for perfect double sessions.
The fact that most of us went to bed way too late for an early-morning practice was lost on him. Lucky for me it was just during one cross-country season and then my sleep patterns got back to normal.
Double-sessions were fairly common for college-aged teams back then but fast-forward more than 20 years and it seems that it is now the norm for younger and younger athletes.
Rest seems to have taken a backseat to all the other training factors in youth sports.
And it comes at a great cost.
But obvious offenders – like double sessions – are the least of the concerns for many of today’s young athletes. And unfortunately, the result of not having restorative sleep negatively impacts sports and school performance as well as overall health.
Guard against these four ways that your athlete may be robbed of quality rest and recovery time.
1) Packed Schedules
Everyone is busy.
It seems to be the norm to have a “full plate.” And we tend to fill up our free time with new commitments.
Regrettably, this busyness encroaches on rest and sleep.
Teen athletes trying to fit everything in – school responsibilities, sports expectations, social demands, and job requirements – get less sleep than what is needed.
Research indicates that they require 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. However, according to the National Sleep Foundation, students in grades 9-12 get on average, 7.2 hours a night – with less and less as they age.
The rigors of athletic training demand that the body gets consistent, quality, sleep in order to repair and gain strength.
Consider these ways to monitor the load your athlete takes on:
- Model good sleep patterns. (7-9 hours for an adult) Allow your kids to see that balance in life is important to you
- Work backward from the number of hours your athlete needs (8-10) and figure out what needs to be cut from their schedule
- Limit the amount of time that your athlete commits to a job – perhaps only working when they are not playing a sport or are out of school
- Keep in mind that late night travel schedules put your athlete at a disadvantage
- Teach your athlete that saying “no” to some requests is not only healthy but wise
2) Caffeine Intake
The QUALITY of an athlete’s sleep is just as important as the number of hours they get.
Unfortunately, there are everyday habits among teens that are negatively impacting how restorative their sleep is.
One of these is the consumption of caffeinated beverages and snacks.
In fact, a recent study suggests that teens are the fastest growing population of caffeine users with as many as 83.2% taking it in regularly.
How can this be?
Caffeine is easily accessible and present in large quantities in:
- Soda: 22 mg - 115 mg
- Coffee: 110 mg - 475 mg
- Tea: 15 mg - 95 mg
- Chocolate: 2 mg - 600 mg
- Energy Drinks: 50 mg - 357 mg
See this chart for specific brands and more details.
The Mayo Clinic recommends no more than 100 mg of caffeine daily for adolescents (and none for children.)
Many of the things that teen athletes are drinking and snacking on go over the daily limit.
Parents need to realize that taking in regular caffeine often means:
- Later bedtimes
- Disrupted sleep
- Daytime drowsiness
3) Device Exposure
If you are a parent of a teenage athlete right now, it is unlikely that you had a cell phone, iPad, computer or TV in your bedroom growing up.
When you went to bed, it was usually in darkness and silence.
Blue light exposure from electronic devices has since been found to be disruptive to proper sleep. This Harvard Health Letter points to the fact that melatonin levels are suppressed when we are exposed to nighttime light.
Most families use their devices right up until bedtime, maximizing exposure which causes circadian rhythms to be thrown off – as a result, everyone’s sleep suffers.
Do your best to protect your teen’s sleep quality by picking any of these strategies:
- Encourage them to turn off the volume to their cell phone at bedtime so that they are not hearing social media alerts, phone calls, texts etc. throughout the night
- Limit time on social media platforms after dinner (or choose a time that works)
- Motivate your athlete to read before bedtime a couple nights a week instead of watching TV by doing a friendly family competition of reading through books. Have an award for the person who gets through the most in a 3-month period to give them an incentive to establish this habit
4) Elite Level Expectations
Summer training camps, travel teams, personal training, one-on-one coaching, and specialized sports clinics have all set the stage for higher and higher performance expectations.
Something has to give.
And unfortunately, for our athletes, adequate rest is one of the first things to be compromised.
Parents with eyes on scholarship money – that push their kids beyond the athlete’s appetite – are setting them up for burnout, unhealthy stress, and imbalanced lifestyles.
Coaches that demand double sessions and year-round team participation are placing unreasonable expectations on their athletes.
Sleep and purposeful rest should be viewed as a critical component to performing on a higher athletic level.
Try these measures to balance sports and recovery:
- Take off at least one entire season every year
- Listen to your athlete’s complaints and comments and make appropriate adjustments in their schedules
- Plan at least one sports-free weekend every month.
- If you are in the middle of a season and have games every weekend then make sure that at least one day a week is complete rest
- Allow and encourage your child to explore activities that are not sports related
- Talk with your athlete about the importance of sleep for their physical, emotional, and mental health
- Choose one night a week that everyone goes to bed an hour early
Final Thought On the Power of Rest
Optimizing sleep and prioritizing recovery should be at the forefront of any training approach. It is the only way that we can expect athletes to grow stronger, become faster, and develop their skills.
Parents and coaches are responsible for making this a priority.
Athletes will learn best when:
- It is modeled before them
- There is a conversation about the value of good sleep – not only for their athletic performance but also for academics, relationships, and overall health
- Parents set their kids up for success by setting reasonable and purposeful restrictions
- Coaches encourage healthy and balanced lifestyles
For best results, take one or two of the above strategies and focus on making some healthy changes for your entire family.
But before you do anything make sure you’re well-rested.