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The Zone Report: Can Sleep Enhance Athletes’ Mental Health and Performance?

A major problem many teens face is lack of sleep. According to the NBCI of the National Institutes of Health, 60% of college students are sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation can have negative effects on both your mental health and performance, but many student-athletes may not understand the extent of those effects or the significance of sleep.

Poor sleep disrupts important functions the brain undergoes while you are asleep. REM sleep, the last and deepest stage of sleep, boosts learning, memory, and emotional health.² Without enough REM sleep your brain cannot repair itself or process all the information and memories obtained during the day.³ Not only does this waste all your hard work, but you will be unable to function properly the next day because your brain has not completely repaired itself from the day before. You will have less energy, motivation, focus, and reflex abilities. Sleep-deprived people will also experience more negative thinking, emotional vulnerability, and impaired thinking — qualities undesired by all athletes. Furthermore, endurance sports require more sleep for consistent energy and motivation, and lack of sleep can exacerbate the smallest amount of stress. Overall, lack of sleep results in inefficient training and learning, thus harming your academic and athletic performance.

Not only does sleep deprivation harm productivity and efficiency, but it increases your risk for depression, anxiety, and may lead to other psychiatric disorders.⁴ Depression, a prevalent problem among students, follows sleep problems 69% of the time. Harvard Health Publishing states that 65% to 90% of adults and 90% of children with depression struggle with sleep problems. Additionally, over 50% of adults who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder also deal with sleep problems.

Despite knowing the impacts of sleep deprivation, student-athletes may not know how to get enough sleep while balancing their sports with academics.

There are multiple ways students can change their lifestyles to get more sleep:

  1. Create a routine or schedule. By going to sleep and waking up at the same time, your body gets used to your sleep schedule, helping you fall asleep when it is time for bed.

  2. Only use your bed to sleep. If you do work on your bed, it is harder to fall asleep at night because your mind associates your bed as your work area.

  3. Avoid using devices right before bed. Using electronics before bed can make it harder to fall asleep. However, if necessary, you could buy blue light glasses to deflect the blue light from your screen that keeps you awake at night.

  4. Try meditation or breathing exercises. Relaxing before bed can help you sleep better.

  5. Avoid taking stimulants. Caffeine before bed will keep you awake at night, and depressants like alcohol can only temporarily help you feel tired but do not help in the long run.⁵

According to Patrick Durkan, Durkan Fencing owner and advisor for multiple USA teams and Olympic athletes, students should adjust their practice times to their academic schedules. For example, when you know that midterms or finals are approaching ask your coach if you could limit your practices or even stop attending them during your testing period. Studying for tests is time-consuming and many students do not get adequate sleep in the process. Going to practice sleep deprived is inefficient and will not help you improve in the long run. It is best to resume your normal practice schedule once testing is over and you are getting enough sleep.

Additionally, Durkan emphasizes that for big tournaments or matches “it is important to get enough sleep two days before the event.” Not getting enough sleep up till the two days before the event or the night before it is not that significant, but getting adequate sleep 48 hours before the event will help boost your performance.

Getting enough sleep can be challenging because you need to manage your time, athletic and academic schedule, and routine. It is helpful to create your personalized schedule and routine because each athlete has different needs and preferences to perform well. It is equally important to keep track of your schedule and performance so you can adjust your routine and make sure you are getting enough sleep each night.


  1. Schlarb, Angelika Anita, Anja Friedrich, and Merle Claßen. “Sleep Problems in University Students — an Intervention.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment. Dove Medical Press, July 26, 2017.

  2. “Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed August 3, 2020.

  3. Publishing, Harvard Health. “Sleep and Mental Health.” Harvard Health. Accessed August 3, 2020.

  4. “Sleep and Mental Health.” Harvard Health. Accessed August 3, 2020.

  5. Cherry, Kendra. “What Affect Does Sleep Have on Mental Health?” Verywell Mind. Accessed August 3, 2020.



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