The recent decision by the Australian Olympic Committee to ban their athletes from taking sleeping pills at the London Olympics has stirred mixed responses. As an athlete I wanted to share my 2-cents. Personally I don’t agree with the AOC and do with New Zealand’s Olympic committee, in rejecting to follow suit. I also thought it worth raising what effect lack of sleep has on performance, why this is such an issue for athletes and tips on how to manage… the dreaded ‘i’ word… insomnia.
Sleep is a very precious commodity to athletic peak performance, in both the mental and physical realms. Lack of sleep reduces vital recovery time (important in multi-day events), negatively impacts on cognitive performance and is a spanner in the works of optimum psychological skills. In addition, an athlete’s perception of their physical condition can be worse than it actually is due to lack of sleep.
If insomnia’s impact can be such a burden to performance, then shouldn’t athletes be super-sleepers? Yes they need to focus on doing everything to facilitate a good night’s sleep but exactly why this is hard to achieve at the Olympics is down to two things: the insomniacs cocktail of long haul flights, jet lag and time zone changes; and performance anxiety of either a once-in-4-year pinnacle-of-their-sport or worse – once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Management of insomnia is vital for athletes. If the aforementioned performance anxiety is responsible, finding the root of the cause rather than resorting first to sleeping pills is best practice. Additional psychological skills and generic recommendations for achieving good sleeping habits should be implemented, and seek professional advice (I’ve just been to a sleep clinic which has helped immensely).
The key then is to be disciplined in applying management practices – easier said than done when you’re tired from lack of sleep!