When student‐athletes tell coaches or athletics staff they’re tired, they’re likely to encounter the brushoff, with responses like “I’m tired, too. We’re all tired. Now let’s get going.”
Instead, coaches and staff should treat fatigue complaints just as seriously as nutritional concerns. That’s because lack of sleep has far‐reaching impact on health, safety, and well‐being, as well as academic and athletic success, according to Roxanne Prichard, scientific director for the Center for College Sleep at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
She spoke about sleep health as part of a panel at the annual convention of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. Jack Ford, correspondent and host with 60 Minutes Sports and PBS, moderated the panel, which also included Kim Record, AD at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Tommy Doles, a student‐athlete at Northwestern University.
Poor sleep health impacts more students than you think, Prichard noted. In fact, many students graduate high school sleep‐deprived, so they don’t see why that should change when they reach college, Ford noted.
Prichard agreed. “A generation of college students are so exhausted they don’t know what it’s like to not feel exhausted,” she noted.
The first step to improving sleep health among student‐athletes is to raise awareness by providing student‐athletes, coaches, and staff with accurate information about sleep, the panelists advised. And everyone involved in athletics should learn to recognize and address the signs of poor sleep health, they said.
You can start by asking student‐athletes “Are you tired when you wake up?” If your own reaction to this question is “Aren’t we all tired? We’re so busy!” or if your student‐athletes respond in a similar fashion, that only confirms the need for sleep education and awareness, Prichard said.
“You should wake up when you’re fully rested, and when you’re done sleeping,” she noted. “Sleep is just like nutrition,” she added. And just as student‐athletes already know the importance of monitoring their food and liquid intake, they should also learn to monitor their sleep habits, she advised.
Prichard and the other panelists shared other tips on how to handle common pushbacks and barriers regarding student‐athletes’ sleep health.
For example, student‐athletes tend to present such arguments as “I can’t afford to get enough sleep because I need the extra time to devote to my studies and workouts. Sleeping more would mean I’m taking that time away from something.”
But the reality is actually quite the opposite — they can’t afford to skimp on sleep, Prichard said. “Students who sleep well have higher GPAs. When you’re well‐rested, it takes you half the time to do homework. Sleep benefits your academics and athletics. When you sleep enough, you feel strong, you’re quick,” she noted.
Student‐athletes are likely to counter with such comments as “The stakes are higher and it’s tougher now. I’m a junior fighting for a position on the team and I need to bring my grades up,” Ford acknowledged.
But coaches and staff should respond by challenging the student‐athlete to just try sleeping more for a week to see the difference it will make before giving up on the importance of sleep health, Prichard advised.
When coaches or athletics administrators hear about a student‐athlete who’s struggling (whether academically, athletically, behaviorally, or health‐wise), athletics administrators should look for the underlying cause, starting with inquiring whether the student‐athlete is sleeping and eating well.
And when student‐athletes say “I’m tired,” coaches and administrators need to resist the tendency to flippantly respond “Well, I’m tired, too,” Record advised. Talk to them about good habits and time management, she said.
Athletics administrators and athletic trainers have begun placing more of a priority on sleep among student‐athletes, Record and Doles said. “We’re seeing a trend toward that being more valued,” Doles noted.
But sleep still isn’t getting the attention it deserves, especially in football. In fact, football players and football coaches tend to have the least amount of sleep out of any collegiate sport, Prichard noted.
All student‐athletes need to understand that “when your body doesn’t get enough sleep, it shifts into fight‐or‐flight mode, which means you’re easier to get overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed,” Prichard explained.
When coaches suspect a mental health concern among their student‐athletes, encourage the coaches to look for what’s going on outside their sport, Record advised. Sometimes student‐athletes resist telling their coaches about mental health issues or anything else they fear might impact their playing time, she noted.
Besides, coaches aren’t psychologists, so they do need to refer their student‐athletes to mental health resources, she said. Start by asking the student‐athlete some specific questions, and follow up with “I get it if you don’t want to talk to me. There are resources where you can go to talk to someone.” And then refer them to athletic trainers, academic support, and/or counseling.
You might be tempted to pull their teammates/friends into the situation to try to figure out what’s bothering the student‐athlete you’re concerned about. “But you have to be careful. That puts that teammate in a position where they don’t want to rat on their teammate,” Record warned. She advised that instead you go to the student‐athlete and say “Hey, people are worried about you.”
Athletics administrators and coaches have the responsibility and obligation to identify student‐athletes of concern and refer them to resources, Record stressed. “The last thing you want is having something be seriously wrong and risk overlooking it,” she noted.
Destigmatizing mental health also plays a critical role, Doles noted. He recommended that student‐athletes, coaches, and staff convey the message that “you need to care for your mental health to be mentally tough. Not only because I care about you, but it’s also a competitive advantage,” Doles said.
Another resource Doles recommended is the organization athletesinaction.org.
If student‐athletes feel tired or “are zonked out on the bus and the plane, they’re not getting enough sleep,” Prichard said. That sleep deficit impacts their circadian rhythm and hormone balance, she noted. Prichard recommended taking the following steps to address and prevent sleep problems among your student‐athletes:
- ❏ Have tired student‐athletes screened for sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.
- ❏ Look into whether their residence halls are too loud, bright, or hot.
- ❏ Identify what you can do to improve their sleep environment, with such items as lavender mists, blackout shades, and gravity blankets.
- ❏ Conduct a point‐by‐point assessment, starting with screening for sleep on pre‐performance.
- ❏ Develop policies, programs, and procedures to improve sleep habits among student‐athletes.
- ❏ Encourage student‐athletes to discuss with their roommates — from the outset — what their guaranteed quiet hours will be and how many times they’re allowed to hit the snooze button on their alarm.
- ❏ Promote a college culture that values sleep as playing a critical role in mental health.
As a senior, Doles said he has become more disciplined with his time and gets more sleep. Although he acknowledged that learning to say no to some things can be difficult, he realizes it’s necessary so he can fit more sleep into his schedule, he said.
For more information, visit www.stthomas.edu/collegesleep/.
Better sleep leads to better free throws, study shows
One way to convince student‐athletes of the importance of sleep is by showing them evidence that adequate sleep will improve their game, recommended Roxanne Prichard, scientific director for the Center for College Sleep at the University of St. Thomas.
She advises telling your student‐athletes that elite‐level basketball players improve their on‐the‐court performance by increasing their amount of total sleep time, according to the results of a study by the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory involving basketball players at Stanford University.
The results suggest “sleep is an important factor in peak athletic performance,” and “athletes may be able to optimize training and competition outcomes by identifying strategies to maximize the benefits of sleep,”
First published: 15 January 2019