4 ways to help your athletes get better sleep when the stakes are high

by Erica Quam

Research shows athletes can improve their performance - in training and in competition - by getting extra sleep. Yet when the stakes are high at championship competitions, it can be harder and harder to fall asleep. 

Athletes can have stress and anxiety going into these competitions that make falling asleep a real challenge. If they are well rested and full of energy as coaches want them to be - ready to tap into peak performance - it can make falling asleep even harder. How do you deal with this dichotomy?

Here are 4 tips you can share with your athletes:

1. Be intentional

Set up an environment where you can:

  • Feel safe - doors locked, windows closed
  • Remain undisturbed - let people know you are going to sleep, use the restroom
  • Get comfortable and warm

Take time to create the conditions where you can be totally relaxed. If noise disturbs you try some earplugs. If there is a lot of light coming into the room, try an eye mask.

2. Choose a 'sleep posture'

If you snore, lie on your side. If you are congested, elevate your head slightly. Have enough blankets to be warm and enough pillows to support your body and relax completely.

If you are a cold sleeper...have what you need to keep your extremities warm: socks, gloves and even a hat if you need it.

If you lie on your back, try placing something over your eyes. Not only does it make the room more dark, heaviness on the eyes helps to soothe the nervous system. You could even try adding some slight pressure to the forehead - either by wearing a hat or using an eye pillow.

Make the physical adjustments you need to so that you can be still. If you need something, get up and get it. Keep adjusting...until you finally have no urge to move.

3. Allow yourself to sleep

This can be easier said than done. Sleep can take time. Allow yourself to begin to relax - without an expectation of when you will fall asleep. Try your best to let go and not get overly frustrated that you're not instantly falling sleep.

  • Consciously let go of your physical body: try relaxing individual groups of muscles from your feet to your hands
  • Bring your attention to your breath: observe the inhale and exhale - just notice it
  • Be mindful: being aware of everything...and judge nothing
  • Let go...& wait

Sometimes we wake up with thoughts of things we think we need to do in the middle of the night. Instead of getting up, try telling your thoughts that you will do it tomorrow. You don't have to do it right now. Give yourself that permission. 

For example: Maybe you wake up and you realize you didn't finish an assignment that is due later in the week. If you don't actually need to do it right away, tell your brain when you will do it. 'I will do it tomorrow at 10am.' Trust you will remember and let go again.

4. Upgrade your pre-sleep routine

Try Melatonin two hours before you go to bed each night. Melatonin is a natural hormone secreted by the pineal gland. Levels increase at night and make sleep more inviting. As with any supplement, check with a doc or your athletic trainer to recommend the right dose for you.

Dim the lights. Screen time and tv can leave your brain alert...firing on all cylinders. If you "have to" be on a device or watch tv after the sun goes down, try an app to reduce the amount of blue light from your screen or wear some simple orange glasses. Both options inhibit the amount of blue light which (research has shown) makes it harder to asleep.

Do a restorative yoga pose for 10 or 15 minutes before you get into bed. Here's a simple pose I recommend that's easy to set up. Restorative yoga is different than meditation. Where meditation can help you relax your mind, restorative yoga works on the physical body first which then helps you relax your mind. Sometimes when it's hard to turn your brain off for meditation, or sitting for long makes you uncomfortable, supported yoga asanas are designed to create the condition for maximum relaxation.

What else do your athletes do that help them get the rest that they need? Share one comment with the group.