Early-Morning Practices and Games Raise Safety Questions
By Doug Abrams
Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reaffirmed that “chronic sleep loss and associated sleepiness are a serious threat to the academic success, health, and safety of our nation’s youth.” The Academy’s new report comes four years after the American Medical Association identified “adolescent insufficient sleep and sleepiness as a public health issue,” and advocated “education about sleep health as a standard component of care for adolescent patients.”
This month’s AAP report advances several causes for the “epidemic” of teen sleep insufficiency, including causes that relate to teens’ lifestyles and non-athletic pursuits. But a prime cause is early school start times (before 8:30 am). “A substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”
Questions and Answers
I am not a physician, and I do not conduct medical research. Without further evidence from medical professionals, we should not reflexively apply emerging sleep-deprivation studies to school-affiliated and private youth sports programs. By emphasizing early school start times as a prime cause of juvenile sleep deprivation, however, these studies deserve notice from sports programs that regularly conduct early-morning weekday practice sessions or early-morning weekend games.
Sports programs need not await further research before contemplating the relationship between sleep and the increasingly demanding schedules that so many athletes maintain in school and community-based sports. Day in and day out, adults make decisions about children’s physical and emotional safety based on common sense and intuition, without consulting published research.
Decisions about the role of early-morning practices and games may be more complicated than the decisions initially appear. One the one hand, for example, schools and private sports associations frequently see little choice but to schedule early-morning events because everyone cannot play at prime time in crowded local ice rinks, basketball courts, swimming pools, and similar facilities. Adults also often say that their own youthful early-morning workout regimens taught dedication, commitment and self-discipline that lasted into adulthood. On the other hand, research suggests that before-school practice sessions (which typically begin an hour or more before the opening bell) can compromise academic performance and encourage absenteeism.
Finally, safety risks lurk when, depending on the mandates of the state’s graduated drivers’ licensing law, parents permit older players to drive themselves to early-morning sessions. Sleepiness, inexperience behind the wheel, darkness, and variable weather conditions provide an unhealthy combination.
At the least, emerging medical research about juvenile sleep deprivation should prod league administrators, parents and coaches to consider the wisdom of several safety measures, including these:
- Avoiding early-morning practices and games where practicable in light of public demands on available sports facilities at school or elsewhere in the community.
- In youth sports associations, allocating the burdens of early-morning practice and game slots among several teams where possible. I have known administrators who routinely schedule the youngest teams at the earliest weekend hours. A few administrators have told me that they resort to such unbalanced scheduling because teens and their parents might balk at playing so early. These administrators often wonder why the youngest players sometimes re-enroll at rates lower than expected the following year. Connect the dots.
- Monitoring the school performance, attendance and overall health of team members who participate regularly in early-morning sports events.
One sleep-related safety measure should not wait further study. Regardless of what the state’s graduated drivers’ licensing law permits, teams should require that older players be driven to early-morning practices and games by their parents, a teammate’s parent, or other responsible adult. Much of the year, early-morning driving may mean traveling in darkness; in much of the nation, it may also mean traveling on icy, slick roads during the winter months. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that “adolescents are at particularly high risk of driving while impaired by sleepiness, and young drivers aged 25 years or younger are involved in more than one-half of the estimated 100,000 police-reported, fatigue-related traffic crashes each year.”
Prudent measures to enhance player safety and well-being should remain first priority for youth sports parents, coaches and administrators. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association have given the adults cause to weigh a public health concern previously off the radar screens of most youth sports programs.
[Sources: Policy Statement, School Start Times for Adolescents, Pediatrics, vol. 134, p. 642 (Aug. 2014); Technical Report, Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults: An Update on Causes and Consequences, Pediatrics, vol. 134, p. 921 (Sept. 2014); American Medical Association, Resolution 503: Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents (2010); Technical Report, Excessive Sleepiness in Adolescents and Young Adults: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment Strategies, Pediatrics, vol. 115, p. 1774 (2005)]