Don’t rest on this: Getting enough sleep is critical to volleyball success

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By Dr. Chris Koutures for VolleyballMag.com

I’m going to share one of the most crucial keys for success for the USA Volleyball national teams.

When it’s said and done, you might want to sleep on it.

When I started as the team physician for the USA Volleyball national teams, I was impressed by how quickly our athletes moved. Not just on the court, but how rapidly they transferred between USA and international club commitments. There were maybe a few off weeks at most between their seasons.

Working with school-aged athletes, the story began to sound pretty similar. Younger players were routinely rotating between club and high school seasons with minimal breaks.

All of this volleyball can indeed create more experienced players, often at the expense of overuse injuries and emotional burnout.

More frequent breaks would be ideal (something advocated by both sports-medicine specialists and athletes themselves) but may not always be feasible.

For athletes in the midst of year-round volleyball, and even for those not at that level, there is one thing that can be controlled and promoted.

The importance of sufficient amounts of high-quality sleep.

We know that well-rested athletes learn quicker, have less injury risk, and perform better during longer training blocks and tournaments. Of all the “recovery” options out there (such as cold, heat, stretching, massage), sleep is hands down the most important choice.

  • Sleep gives muscles needed time for repair and growth. Most of getting taller takes places during sleep (a huge selling point for kids waiting to grow).
  • Bodies and brains move faster, think faster, and respond more favorable to coaching.

The best coaching, strength training, and nutrition advice cannot overcome the nightmare of inadequate sleep.

How do the USA Volleyball national teams make sleep a priority?

  • We sometimes obsess about sleep — constantly speaking amongst ourselves and with other experts to learn new ways to encourage sleep
  • Everyone is in on sleep as a priority — players, coaches, medical staff, psychologists, nutritionists, strength staff
  • We routinely discuss good sleep habits both for training and travel
  • We design the start times and length of training sessions to allow better sleep
  • We allow our athletes to help decide when they need more time away for the court to get enough sleep

Now, you might rightfully argue that our athletes have additional support resources and don’t have to compete with school and court access schedules. However, just because younger players may have additional challenges, doesn’t reduce the importance of sleep.

How much sleep does that mean?

High school-aged athletes who got at least eight hours of sleep a night had less injury risk than those who got less sleep.

So, let’s use a minimum of eight hours a night as a good starting point. Now, part of this recommendation is somewhat individualized. Some may need more, and some may need a bit less. 

So how do you measure the amount and quality of sleep? There are apps (and monitoring devices) for that. However, before becoming over-dependent on apps that may not be truly accurate, there are some other ways to assess sleep needs.

Look at your mood and feelings of how hard you are working

  • If you are more irritable, quicker to anger, less patient or focused, you probably need more sleep
  • When balls are whizzing past you on defense, amp up your sleep
  • If you seem to be working harder on the court, in the weight room, or in class and getting less done, it’s time to get more sleep
  • Click here for some more simple ways to measure mood and exertion

Others may also notice these things. Honest self-appraisal shared with team staff can create a more individualized program that promotes more sleep and better performance. This is how we do it with USA Volleyball.

Balancing school, volleyball, social lives, and the need for sleep

Now, I hear all the time that this idea sounds really good, in theory. However, in reality, there just aren’t enough hours of the day between school, volleyball, travel/commute, social life.

How can a busy young athlete find enough time to get it all in? I’ll cover some general sleep recommendations and follow with some volleyball-specific guidelines.

Sleep Hygiene 101

  • Try to go to sleep the same time (or within a half hour) every night.
  • Use your bedroom for sleep and changing only. Try not to study, watch Netflix, or do too much else in the bedroom. Train your brain to view your bedroom as a sleep room.
  • Don’t have the time visible. Waking up and checking the clock can lead to poor sleep patterns and increase anxiety.
  • Don’t have electronics in the bedroom. Eliminate blue light, chirps, pings and other distractions.
  • Stop electronic use at least one hour before bedtime. Alert friends you are going off the grid. This may make them have better sleep as well!
  • Maybe even put down that device more often during the day. Less checking of social media might mean homework gets done quicker and more time for sleep.
  • Do not use any supplements or medications for sleep without appropriate medical advice.
  • Don’t rely upon using weekends or breaks to “catch up” on missed sleep. Getting a longer or deeper amount of sleep one day cannot make up for poor sleep on previous or future days.

Do naps count in that daily sleep amount?

Yes, they do, especially if done right. Falling asleep in class or video sessions does not count.

A planned nap in the middle of the day for 30-45 minutes maximum can restore energy, reduce post-nap grogginess, and not delay bedtime at night.

Tournament time?

  • If traveling to different time zone, try to get on that new time zone schedule a few days ahead of arrival.
  • Consider cancelling practices right before or after travel to allow adjustments and recovery.
  • Make sleep a key part of the travel routine. Make and enforce lights out (and electronic-free) times. Schedule regular naps if possible, between games.
  • Develop personalized routines to reduce pre-game anxiety and difficulties falling asleep. This includes using those sleep hygiene cues and possibly visualization, breathing exercises, or other techniques. Practice these techniques well before the big match to have them ready to go when needed the most.

How about early morning pre-game serve-and-pass sessions?

These shorter practices are designed for players to get touches and prepare for game play later in the day. Could these sessions actually be more harmful than helpful? If they happen to interrupt sleep, then yes. Especially following late night match/practice or arrival for competition, early wake-up calls for serve/pass might not be the best call.

I’ve seen our national teams either eliminate serve/pass sessions or make them optional at most. Some players feel more benefit from serve/pass and the opportunity is there for them. Others want the benefit of more sleep, and that opportunity is their choice as well.

Now, volleyball isn’t the only sport making pre-game routine changes in the interest of sleep.

Pre-game shootarounds used to be the norm in the NBA. Notice that I wrote “used to be the norm.” With back-to-back and even three-in-a-row playing days (sound familiar?), sleep took priority over practices. Did performance suffer as a result? Not a chance. If anything, players feel more refreshed, alert, and stronger for the next game.

How about early morning conditioning or weight-training?

I get it, there are only so many hours in the day, and school takes up six to seven hours of prime time. Planning morning conditioning or weights allows for recovery time before afternoon/evening practice or matches. By not tacking on additional training at the end of the day, athletes can get earlier starts on homework and social lives.

All of these are positive arguments for morning training, but they fall apart if there isn’t enough sleep to support them. Again, I’ll emphasize the importance of a minimum eight hours a night for high-school aged-athletes. Not getting those eight or more hours increases the risk of injury, illness, and probably doesn’t do a whole lot for academic success either.

So, if those early morning sessions cut into those sleep periods, then they too may be doing more harm than good.

Final words on volleyball and sleep

When deciding on scheduling anything “extra’ (practice/skills training/weights/recovery session), ask if that commitment is “really” needed. Anything that jeopardizes sleep jeopardizes performance. So if there is any risk of affecting amount of sleep, it is best not to schedule anything.

Sleep alone won’t put you on the podium, but without enough of it, all the other stuff just won’t matter as much.

Dr. Chris Koutures is a dual board-certified pediatric and sports medicine specialist who practices at ActiveKidMD in Anaheim Hills, CA. He is a team physician for USA Volleyball (including participating in the 2008 Beijing Olympics), the U.S. Figure Skating Sports Medicine Network, Cal State Fullerton Intercollegiate Athletics, Chapman University Dance Department, and Orange Lutheran High School. He offers a comprehensive blend of general pediatric and sport medicine care with an individualized approach to each patient and family. Please visit https://activekidmd.com/ or follow him on twitter (@dockoutures).

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