Addressing the Elephant on Deck: How tracking sleep can lead to a culture of improvement

By Jim Davis and Mac Guy (this article was originally published in the NISCA Journal, 2019)

The Obvious Truth

How many pizzas did Michael Phelps eat during heavy training days? What starting stance does Caleb Dressel use? What sort of music does Katie Ledecky listen to in the locker room?

We are all looking for an advantage. While athletes and coaches are busy looking for subtle boosts in competitive edge, many have turned their backs to the greatest performance enhancer of all: sleep. This is especially apparent within the culture of swimming.

Competitive swimming often demands early mornings, late nights, or both. The logistics of pool availability are always a factor, compounded by the desire to complete multiple workouts in a single day. Add dryland sessions and rigorous academic schedules and we have set up a gauntlet that only the strongest survive. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. 

Coaches, if we truly want the best for our student-athletes, then we must consider the requests we make of our teams in the context of their specific environments. 

For example, at New Trier High School we practice every afternoon and on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday which at 5:45 am. Compared to past practice schedules that included twelve practices a week (twelve!), our current schedule seems elementary. But let’s consider what that looks like. 

If one of our athletes is expected to start practice at 5:45 am on Wednesday morning, then we have to look back at Tuesday to understand how reasonable that might be. On a typical Tuesday, athletes start school at 8:15. After school practice goes until 5:30. After showering, they can be home by 6:15/6:30. They’ll throw their backpack in their room and, if dinner has already been prepared, eat a quick meal until 7:00pm. If they go immediately into their homework and work without interruption until 9:00pm, they can be in bed by 10:00pm. With a 5:00 am wakeup call for a 5:45 practice, that leaves 7:00 hours for sleep, IF the athlete is out as soon as they hit the pillow.

It would take a highly regimented student-athlete with a rock-solid to pull that off. Notice that there was no time for Snapchat or Netflix. No time to talk with friends online. Also note that while seven hours sounds fine to working people, the CDC claims that adolescents need eight to ten hours per night. Athletes need even more.

Based on the structure of their day, we have unintentionally built a schedule that – even in the best case scenario – promotes sleep deprivation. We have to confront that truth.

Too often, people think the best swimmers, or students, are the ones that do the most on the least amount of sleep. In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker has has referred to is as sleep machismo, sleep bravado. It’s a faulty narrative that coaches should do their best to combat.

Because here’s the real truth – no one who is consistently sleep deprived believes they are making a good decision. They feel bad. They think poorly. They are grumpy and emotional and many would freely admit that they need more sleep. But they don’t get it. They turn their backs to it, and their performance in school and in the pool suffers as a result.

Let’s Talk About Sleep

Over the last two seasons, our goals have been twofold: 1) help our athletes understand how sleep can affect their lives and 2) equip them with strategies to maximize their sleep. 

Most of our students hear that sleep is important, but we are not convinced that they know exactly how important it is. Eight hours of sleep, like the recommended eight glasses of water per day, feels to many like an old cliche – a “wash behind your ears” sort of suggestion. Our students routinely report that an eight hour night would be a blessing, and is anything but the norm. To this end, we host group discussions which include expert speakers and research to embed the idea that if we work hard, we must rest hard. Balance is essential.

As the season progresses we have found that, although our athletes understand that sleep is important, they still might not be willing to prioritize it. This is not for lack of understanding. Simply, they get caught up in school, practice, homework, and the complicated social ecosystem that comes with being an adolescent in high school. 

Sleep does not always seem as important as, say, the homecoming dance. Or a math test. It is understandable why something as boring as sleep (which looks a lot like doing nothing for an extended period of time) would not remain at the front of one’s mind. So we remind them.

Friday Evening Swimming. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

We talk about the importance of rest. And we talk about how sleep is the cornerstone of recovery. But then we took it a step further. 

Two years ago we began asking athletes to track their sleep. As part of our dryland training, we ask a quick series of questions, which include sleep quantity (total hours) and sleep quality (a 1-10 rating). With this method, we could get a handle on just how well our student-athletes were resting and support them as needed; the method had the additional benefit of being a frequent and subtle reminder that sleep was important. 

The very act of tracking encourages students to self-reflect. 2-3 times per week, our athletes must consider their sleep habits from the night before. Eventually, we hope that this allows them to be more thoughtful about sleep habits in general. In other, similar studies, students confirm this idea: “I didn’t really think about [how many hours] I got. By the end of the season I would stop watching TV because I knew what time it was and how many hours I needed to get before practice.”

The very act of tracking encourages students to self-reflect.

Methods & Data: TrainHeroic Year One

At the beginning of each of our dryland sessions we asked all our athletes to collect four pieces of information. Athletes rated themselves on a scale from 1 (poor) to 10 (excellent), tracking their 1) amount of sleep, 2) quality of sleep, 3) amount of stress, 4) quality of stress, 5) and intentional nutrition decisions. The TrainHeroic app allowed athletes to access the survey on their phones or iPads.

*Important: we do not want athletes to be on their technology during the workouts, so this survey was taken while during warmups. Often, one athlete would be doing the bar component of the warmup, one athlete would be doing the band component of the warmup, and another athlete would be filling out the survey. When all were done warming up, before we explained the workout for the day, they would place their phones in a basket in the coach’s office.

Occasionally, when we noticed sleep trends slipping, we would try to identify causes. In group and individual discussions, our athletes often cited device usage, homework, and eating late as factors that got in the way of earlier bedtimes. Through these short meetings, we were able to acknowledge the demands of our team’s schedule in conjunction with their rigorous academic loads. We call this unbraiding. We took the time to pull apart these ideas, and address each one individually.

Do we have control over school start times? If not, then we must do our best to plan accordingly. Do we have control over our social media engagement? If yes, then we must decide if that last hour of Snapchat is more valuable than another hour of sleep.

By moving beyond the known obstacles to good sleep, we were able to address common-sense strategies to help them get in bed earlier. Moderating time on social media, minimizing distractions during study time, and seeking academic assistance from teachers outside of class were habits that some of our better sleepers recommended. We also emphasized the idea that when a full night’s sleep was not possible, a better night’s sleep was preferable. In that way, we often celebrated when our athletes were able to increase their amount of sleep by fifteen to thirty minutes at a time. Over the course of the week, that sleep adds up. Over the course of a season, it can be game-changing. Consider this: 20 additional minutes of sleep per night can result in more than 24 hours of sleep over the course of the season. That rest matters.

With frequent exposure to explicit strategies and peer modeling, we hoped to combat the narrative that better sleep was impossible for swimmers who have morning practice and take on demanding academic workloads.

What we found at the end of our season supported this idea. Athletes who slept more often reported feeling better, but the most notable findings came from athletes who did not sleep well. If an athlete averaged 6.5 hours of sleep or fewer throughout the season, she was four times more likely to be in the bottom half of the team in terms of performance improvement. 

With such a stark contrast in swimmer performance, why wouldn’t it be obvious to teens that sleep is essential? Because we (the coaches) are measuring performance improvement, while many overvalue performance outcome.

The athletes are receiving misleading feedback loops. That is, their low level of improvement in the absence of sleep does not necessarily mean they did not perform well. There are many sleep-deprived athletes with medals around their necks on the podium. Baggy-eyed and exhausted through the next day’s classes, they have achieved in spite of themselves.

This aligns with the research coming out of Dr. Matthew Walker’s lab at UC Berkeley. In his lab, Dr. Walker measures performance on cognitive tests after different levels of sleep deprivation. Although many of his subjects make errors – or miss responses entirely – he notes that participants “consistently underestimated the degree of performance disability.”

We call that the Talent Delusion.

The participants in Dr. Walker’s study, our athletes, and ourselves – we are all operating below capacity more often than we are willing to admit. We are talented enough to coach well, our athletes are talented enough to perform well, but we are not coaching, swimming, thinking, or behaving at the peak of our ability. We have not yet reached our potential.

As coaches, we recognize that improvement is the most important metric. We are charged with development, with enhancement. Maximizing the potential of those we work with is the ultimate aim. 


A Moment of Reflection

Occasionally, we will do breathing and mindfulness exercises with our athletes. In only a few minutes, athletes often report falling asleep. Their minds are starving for rest. They are exhausted.

So Coaches, while we work to build understanding within our athletes, let’s also take a moment to reflect on the systems in which we ask them to perform.

When do they leave practice for the day? What time are we asking them to be back in the pool? Have we allowed a sufficient opportunity for an athlete to downregulate from practice, get some food and finish their homework, and receive enough sleep to successfully recover from the day?

The elephant on deck is the no-longer-inconspicuous secret that our athletes are sleep deprived. We, the coaches, are the ones holding the keys to the systems in which these dilemmas are born.

With this in mind, we recommend two core ideas:

  1. Talk about sleep (and other core elements of rest), then track them. This provides opportunity not only for understanding, but for self-reflection, and continued reinforcement of core concepts.
  2. Talk about healthy sleep practices, and practice them ourselves. Set up structures so that athletes and coaches can prioritize wellness. Model the way. Create a culture of health.

By creating practice schedules that allow for adequate recovery and emphasize sleep skills, we hope that our athletes will be healthier in every aspect of their life. Not only will they be more likely to improve their athletic performance, but they can improve their academic and interpersonal potentials as well. Sleep is the key. But without the explicit intervention of their coaches, our athletes are more likely than ever to sleepwalk through their swimming careers.