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For many, college is a time for exploration, curiosity and self-discovery. But for 70% of students, it is also a time of sleep deprivation. And finding time for rest is an especially complex balancing act for student-athletes, who juggle their academic ambitions on top of practice, travel and competitions.
According to a NCAA report, one-third of student-athletes nationwide are sleep-deprived, especially women. Being tired is detrimental to both their mental health and performance in the classroom, on the court or on the field.
“Sleep, it’s not even a tool; it’s a requirement,” said Christopher Kline, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor in the School of Education's Department of Health and Human Development. In 2017, the Sleep Research Society member was invited by the NCAA to join a task force consisting of researchers and athletic departments nationwide. The report, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, assessed how collegiate athletics departments can better facilitate sleep culture.
Task force findings resulted in recommendations to athletic departments to conduct surveys, incorporate sleep screenings and offer evidence-based sleep education to address questions Kline said remain largely unevaluated.
Julianna Dalton, pictured left, a star outside hitter on the Pitt women’s volleyball team, said Pitt’s prioritization of holistic wellness is standout compared to other college athletic programs.
“That definitely was a change here,” said Dalton, who transferred from Washington State University in the spring of 2022. The Pitt team is coming off its winningest season since 1990 and a second straight Final Four appearance. Their most recent match, against University of Kentucky on April 16, resulted in a win.
A redshirt sophomore and academic junior majoring in communication and minoring in film and media studies, Dalton said Pitt offered a great volleyball program and access to game-changing resources and care spearheaded by people like Felix Proessl (SHRS ’22G), who joined Pitt Athletics in the summer of 2022 as the director of sports science.
“Felix and [the athletic department], they’ve educated us a lot about prioritizing sleep,” said Dalton, citing the department’s use of apps like Calm and Proessl’s hands-on approach, which includes visiting the team every three weeks to discuss healthy sleep habits based on team input, recovery, hydration, stretching and more.
Kline, too, commended Proessl for helping to implement the NCAA task force’s recommendations at Pitt and “reinvigorating the discussion,” by emphasizing the importance of sleep in the broader context of student-athlete wellness and considering the physical, cognitive and emotional components of sport.
“Sleep is unfortunately often restricted,” said Proessl. “We see that in our athletes here.”
He said the literature supports the notion that reduced sleep not only influences physical aspects of athletic performance, such as the ability to perform high-intensity actions or quickly recover from training, but also worsens our working memory, learning, reaction time and cognitive decision-making, which are equally important when competing at the highest level.
Leaning on advice from Proessl, Dalton said she now uses sleep as a gauge for her performance on the court as she strives to become an elite athlete.
“I have seen so many effects — from being able to move better, see better, track the ball; I feel better, I can eat and digest better. I love sleeping. It helps with the senses and being more alert.”
Getting eight hours of sleep each night is also a goal for the entire volleyball team and part of their path to winning a national championship.
For athletes like Dalton, Kline and Proessl also encourage the use of recovery tools like foam rollers and massage therapy. Proessl is looking to add new technology to complement the wellness questionnaires and self-reports Pitt athletes currently complete.
“Ultimately, everybody is interested in the same question: ‘How do we get better?’” said Proessl, who’s challenging all coaches to assess team logistics and manipulate schedules in a way that capitalizes on sleep and recovery time.
“I feel privileged to be in a position and place like Pitt that values sports science and is open-minded to new thoughts and collaboration; where I can ask questions, collect data, synthesize and report it in order to bring athletes, coaches and support staff members together and optimize performance. Like very few schools in the U.S., Pitt’s strong in research and competes in a power five conference athletically, so it’s the best of both worlds.”
Improve your sleep with these 9 tips
Everyone, regardless of athleticism, can benefit from better sleep. Here’s what you can do to improve yours, according to Kline and Brant Hasler, an associate professor in Pitt's Department of Psychiatry.
1. Schedule sleep time into your daily schedule. In the same way you plan training or attending class, you should schedule time for sleep with a minimum goal of 7-8 hours per night. Track how you’re doing using a fitness tracker or a paper-and-pencil diary.
2. Incorporate naps when needed. Naps can be helpful following nights of too little sleep, but the focus should always be to get enough nocturnal sleep. If you need to nap, keep it relatively brief (less than 45 minutes) and ideally during the afternoon, which makes it less likely to disturb sleep that night.
3. Keep a regular sleep schedule — even on weekends. Keeping a consistent morning wake time is important to keep your “body clock” on track. On weekends, sleeping in a little is okay — but try to limit it to 1 hour or less. Also, an afternoon nap (see above) is less likely to disrupt your clock than sleeping in.
4. Optimize your sleep environment. Ideally, your bedroom should be cool (60-68 degrees Fahrenheit), quiet (no distractions), comfortable (proper pillow and mattress) and as dark as possible. White noise can help if eliminating distractions is impossible.
5. Use light and dark to your advantage. Try to get as much bright light, preferably outdoors, in the morning soon after getting out of bed. Likewise, minimize bright light exposure in the evening. Rely on lamps and avoid overhead lights. If you use a screen-based device like a smartphone, tablet or computer, minimize exposure to blue light by using specific apps (like Nightshift) or glasses (like blue-blockers).
6. Establish a consistent pre-bedtime routine. Use the 30-60 minutes prior to your planned bedtime to unwind from the day, relax and limit the use of electronics. Follow this routine in low lighting.
7. Be smart about caffeine and alcohol consumption. Limit caffeine consumption after lunchtime and avoid it altogether in the evening. Minimize alcohol consumption, too — even though it may help you fall asleep, you’ll sleep worse overall.
8. Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. If you’ve been lying in bed unable to sleep, get up and do something relaxing (e.g., read a book) in dim light. Don’t go back to bed until you’re sleepy again.
9. Don’t expect perfection. Everyone has an occasional night of poor sleep, and waking up briefly during the night is typical. Trying to force yourself to sleep is counterproductive — the best you can do is set the stage.
— Kara Henderson, photography by Aimee Obidzinski