The Cost of Wakefulness

In 2003, researchers from Penn and Harvard Medical Schools wanted to see if people could avoid the “recommended” amount of sleep without suffering serious negative consequences.

Over a two-week period, the researchers studied four groups of people. Group 1 went three days without sleep. Groups 2, 3, and 4 received four, six, and eight hours sleep every night, respectively. All the groups were continuously monitored and tested for behavioral, physiological, and mental changes.

For people who like to avoid sleep, the results were not positive. The researchers saw significant deficiencies in all cognitive and physical tasks, with no noticeable difference between four-hour and six-hour groups. The most alarming result was that the four-hour and six-hour groups produced performance deficiencies equal to two nights of total sleep deprivation (as reflected after Nights 1 and 2 from Group 1’s results).

Essentially, sleeping just two hours less than the recommended eight hours for two consecutive nights led to the same negative consequences as back-to-back all-nighters.

The researchers also discovered another startling fact: People were unaware of the deficits. So often, people pride themselves on being able to go without sleep, but these people don’t realize how significantly the lack of sleep is hurting their performance.

The Benefits of Sleep

Research has shown that when people get a certain amount of sleep (e.g., 7+ hours for adults; 9+ hours for teens; 10+ hours for children), the health benefits are immense. As world-renowned sleep scientist Matthew Walker says, “Sleep is the single-most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body health. Sleep is a life-support system, and it is mother nature’s best effort at immortality.”

The truth is that, as parents and coaches, we don’t take these benefits seriously enough. Typically, our priorities are:

1. Exercise
2. Nutrition
3. Sleep

However, sleep is the most important, and it is the foundation for performance and a healthy life, as illustrated below:

As I have previously written about in coaching articles, not only do we ignore the importance of sleep in our own lives, but we also push our athletes and children to do more training and eat the right things, rather than prioritizing and supporting healthy sleep habits.
Just look at some of the important reasons to get 8+ hours of sleep a night:

• Sleep extends the time it takes to reach physical exhaustion by 30%.
• Sleep significantly improves information and memory retention.
• Sleep improves muscle strength and cardiovascular function.
• Your ability to cool the body, perspire, remove lactic acid, and achieve muscle recovery all depend on getting the proper amount of sleep.
• If you sleep less than 8 hours, 70% of your weight loss will be muscle mass, not body fat!

No training program or diet can boast those types of results! However, to achieve them, we must focus more of our energy on ensuring our children and athletes get the proper amount of sleep.

Six Commitments for Better Sleep

It’s harder than ever for kids to get the right amount of sleep. Phones and screen time have presented a new barrier on top of the increasing volume of training sessions and homework. Between the additional workload and the easy access to screen time, it seems impossible for kids to get the necessary amount of sleep in today’s world.
Here are six commitments to consider making as a family or as a team to help your children and athletes get the quality and quantity of sleep that they will need to perform at their best in all areas of their lives:

1. Keep the Room Dark, Quiet, and Cold: Research reveals these 3 conditions are most important for high quality sleep. So get blackout curtains and make sure the room is between 65 and 70 degrees.
2. Power-Down Ritual: A hot shower lowers your core body temperature. When followed by some light stretching, mindfulness activities, or reading, this can provide an ideal mental routine to help you sleep.
3. Leave Phone in Other Room: Get a traditional alarm clock or set your phone’s alarm volume to maximum and put it in the next room over. Not only will you stop wasting time looking at your phone before bed, but you will also be more likely to get up after the first alarm rings and not hit the snooze button.
4. Consistent Bedtime: Due to our internal clock system, researchers have proven a regular routine helps people fall asleep and wake up easier.
5. Avoid Caffeine: It stays in your system much longer than you realize, so avoid it at all costs in the afternoon and evening.
6. Beds Are for Sleeping: Researcher Matthew Walker believes great sleep habits need to be conditioned. By getting rid of the television in the bedroom and avoiding other activities (like homework) in bed we condition ourselves to associate the bed with sleep.

Expect Some Resistance

These simple strategies might face some resistance from wary teenagers. But the outcome can be undeniably beneficial!
For instance, the Texas Tech basketball team introduced their own smart phone policy for the NCAA tournament last year: No cell phones in the rooms on the night before the game! When asked about the policy, the players credited it for helping them reach the NCAA Championship game.

My recommendation is to work with your team and/or child to implement some small changes, which will give them some control while still stressing the benefits of cutting down on screen time.

Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker