Earlier this month, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) convened a panel of experts to examine the role of sleep in the lives of collegiate athletes. Deemed the Interassociation Task Force on Sleep and Wellness, the group represented professional organizations related to sleep as well as various medical and athletic organizations from across the country. The American Sleep Association was invited to the meeting, and along with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and National Sleep Foundation, they provided critical insight into the science of sleep as it relates to our young athletes.
The NCAA has investigated the role sleep plays in the lives of student athletes for several years. Some of these findings were presented in the 2015 Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students (GOALS) Study. Perhaps the most eye-opening data to come out of the study was the sheer number of hours devoted to athletics and academics by these students. In 2015, athletes reported spending 34 hours/week on athletics and in some cases, as much as 40.5 hours on academics. Unfortunately, these time commitments are often preventing these individuals from getting the sleep they require. Depending on the sport, athletes reported getting anywhere from 6.63 hours/night (women’s ice hockey) to 5.84 hours/night (men’s football). The majority of these students wish they could sleep more.
These sleep problems extend beyond the athlete. Coaches and athletic training staff are often not only in the dark about the sleep of these students’, but often have very little power to change the situation. In many cases, the systematic screening for underlying sleep disorders does not exist or may only consist of a few questions on an athlete’s health screening form.
During the two-day meeting, participants worked to understand the scope of the problem from not only a scientific perspective, but also from a logistical and procedural perspective as coaches, administrators, and student athletes gave their unique perspectives as to the obstacles in place preventing them from achieving optimal sleep. Universities with novel sleep programs presented their blueprints for integrating sleep education and sleep monitoring programs within university athletic programs. These perspectives highlighted both the similarities, but also the infrastructure differences between a high profile Division I football team and a small Division III field hockey team. Are meals conveniently available to an athlete after a practice allowing proper nutrition and more time to devote to sleep or is the athlete forced to travel to a remote location to get food? A clear theme of the meeting was that there are significant differences between resources available to different universities and their various athletic organizations.
Moving into the future, this task force is working to achieve several objectives:
- Understand in greater detail and in a more academically rigorous way the true scope of sleep dysfunction in collegiate athletics.
- Identify superior ways to target and deliver improved sleep education and support to the athlete. As a part of this, it will be essential for schools with limited resources to have access to qualified sleep professionals while simultaneously training their own staff (athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, current medical staff) to know more about the initial screening and diagnosis of sleep disorders.
- Target and modify obstacles preventing adequate sleep in collegiate athletes. Do these athletes realistically have enough time in their schedule to be successful students, successful athletes and successful sleepers? How can we stress the importance of the healthy sleep message in the midst of many other messages bombarding both the athlete, coach and administrator?
- Build a database of real information demonstrating improved health, academic and athletic outcomes when sleep is prioritized.
This meeting was the first step in what promises to be a long process. The American Sleep Association is committed to playing a leading role in this important task for our young student athletes across the country.
Dr. Chris Winter, MD represented the ASA at the Interassociation Task Force on Sleep meeting.