Lack of sleep makes child athletes more likely to get injured

On a rainy weekend morning, Joanna Mustovitch braces against the cold along with the other parents at Burnaby's 8 Rinks Arena in greater Vancouver. 

Mustovitch has sacrificed her Sunday to bring her 13-year-old son here to play house league hockey, to support his dream of one day becoming a professional player. 

And as part of her efforts, every night at 9:30 p.m. Mustovitch gathers all of her son's electronics to make sure he gets a good night's sleep. 

"Once he has no distractions and gets to sleep he's fine," she said. "At this age, I don't think he cares enough about being a good athlete to want to stop the electronics."

70% increase in injury risk

Many parents understand how sleep affects their children's performance the next day. But experts at the World Sleep Congress in Vancouver this week say that relationship may be even more important than parents realize. 

According to the World Sleep Society, the risk of injury increases by up to 70 per cent when young athletes get less than eight hours of sleep. Conversely, sleeping more than 10 hours a night has been shown to increase sprint speed, shooting accuracy and mental health of college-aged basketball players. 

"Injury is the leading cause of child and youth death and disability in Canada, with sports-related injuries being the most common one in populations at school age," according to a description of one of the talks at the World Sleep Congress in Vancouver this week. 

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Dr. Charles Samuels, president of the Canadian Sleep Society and medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance at the University of Calgary, works with teenage athletes as they make a hopeful journey to the podium.

"It's the time in their life when they need the most sleep, and get the least sleep," Samuels said from the congress on Sunday. "That does impact their ability to recover [and] train at a level that improves their performance over time."

Pivotal role

While experts still can't say with certainty what exactly sleep is, Samuels said they do better understand its pivotal role in basic human functions like cardiovascular, muscular and mental health. 

Samuels says a good or bad night's rest can mean the difference between a medal or the sidelines.

One of the most common sleep issues that Samuels sees in teenage athletes is a natural age-related delay in sleepiness that makes them want to go to bed later and wake up accordingly. 

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The issue is so common it has prompted some schools across the country to consider later start times for teenage students.

Samuels suggests parents not force their child to go to bed before they're tired, and instead to encourage them to wind down at the end of day, and create a bedtime routine. 

"You can't force them to fall asleep at 10 if their clock is set at midnight," he said. 

Active minds

Another common issue Samuels comes across is wakefulness caused by electronics.

Many of the athletes he works with have enough drive to succeed that they will put their phones away before bed, but Samuels appreciates the difficulty parents can have with less motivated children. 

For them, Samuels suggests parents try tp find something their children are motivated to do and tie a good night's sleep to that. 

Samuels also offers meditation to help athletes relax before bed when they have too much on their minds.

It's important for athletes to monitor how much sleep they're getting, Samuels said, and to seek help from a physician when sleeplessness becomes an issue.