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Why and How to Prioritize Sleep for Mental Wellness

Whether in high school or in college, your athletes are probably not getting enough sleep to maximize their potential at practice and on game day. As a coach, this can be frustrating since it can seem out of your control. In fact, even athletes themselves have little control over how much they sleep since they often deal with two-a-day practices, mountains of homework, and, for college students, classes at strange times and unruly roommates. But there are some controllable ways athletes can boost their sleep for the better.

TrueSport Expert Charron Sumler, LPCC, is the Athletic Counselor for Ohio State University, where she helps athletes better understand the connection between sleep and mental well-being. Here, she shares a few tips and tools to help coaches better understand the challenges faced by athletes and pave the way to better sleep, better mental health, and better performance on the field.

Why athletes should prioritize sleep

Understand the Role Sleep Plays for Performance

“You simply cannot talk about mental health without talking about sleep,” says Sumler. “When you look at all of the strategies that are marketed towards athletes to boost preparation and recovery, none of them are as effective or as important as simply getting enough sleep.”

In fact, one study found that basketball players who were getting six hours of sleep or less per night had 30 percent lower levels of concentration than those who got the recommended amount. Research has also shown that physical performance from players who weren’t sleeping enough dropped by roughly a third, including time to exhaustion. Additionally, the risk of injury increased: Over a single season, athletes in that study were 80 percent more likely to be injured. Finally, insufficient sleep has been linked to decreased focus and concentration while playing.

Understand the Role Sleep Plays for Mental Health

It can be easy to explain the performance benefits of sleep to your athletes, but the mental health piece is just as important, especially for young athletes who deal with high-stress levels on and off the playing field.

“I don't think there's a single mental health disorder that doesn't affect sleep or is not affected by sleep,” says Sumler. “But even beyond mental health disorders, your ability to manage your emotions is decreased when you aren't sleeping enough. So is your perception of how difficult things are. A workout that was fine yesterday can suddenly seem impossible to finish after a night of poor or inadequate sleep. And those kinds of mental blocks start to increase more with more sleep deprivation.”

Understand What “Enough Sleep” Means for Adolescents

It may come as a surprise, but teens and young adults often require more than the 7-9 hours that are recommended for adults. Young athletes, in particular, need more sleep to allow their bodies time to fully recover.

“Often, I hear from college athletes who think six hours of sleep is adequate because they've heard that 6-8 hours of sleep is 'normal,'” says Sumler. “Athletes think they're in the safe zone with that amount of sleep, but that's actually sleep deprivation.”

Ideally, athletes should be getting 9-9.5 hours of sleep every night, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

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