The Effects of Sleep on Performance
In this day and age, sleep could be considered a luxury for many of us. Whether you have to study, work, or do chores, sometimes it’s difficult to get enough sleep. This leaves you feeling tired, irritable, and sleepy the next day. This problem is even bigger if you’re an adolescent who, due to brain chemistry, usually goes to bed very late and ends up getting too little sleep.
In the next few paragraphs, you’ll learn exactly how sleep affects performance, the DO’s and DON’T’s of staying awake, and how you can get more sleep. Also, we’ll look at common assumptions about sleep and determine if they’re myths or if there is some truth to them.
Consequences of poor sleep
When we say “poor sleep,” we’re thinking of both quantity and quality – how many hours and how restful those hours actually are. Poor sleep includes not enough hours, frequent nocturnal awakening, and trouble waking up in the morning. Sometimes, if you don’t sleep enough, the quality of your sleep can compensate for it; other times, even if you sleep for ten hours but wake up non-stop, you might wake up feeling tired. 
The things that are most affected by the lack of quality sleep are learning, memory, and motor skills.
In order to really learn something, the newly acquired knowledge needs to be properly consolidated – that is to say, stored safely in our long-term memory. For this to happen, at least 4.5 hours of sleep is necessary the night after learning something new. So, if you spent hours studying something the night before an exam, but didn’t give yourself enough time for quality sleep, chances are you’ll do worse than if you only studied for half that time, but got enough sleep afterwards. 
As for performing motor skills, similar rules apply – you need enough quality sleep for best performance. This is especially important for movement-based sports, learning an instrument, or developing fine artistic movement. If you don’t sleep enough the night before the big competition, you’ll be slower and less precise than you might expect to be. What you should do is get some rest from that activity for 24 hours before the performance, as well as make sure you get a good night’s sleep. This might sound counterintuitive – shouldn’t I squeeze in as much practice as possible? Not the day before the performance! As we mentioned before, newly learned things (and this means movement-based things as well) need to be properly stored in long-term memory if you are to remember and perform them correctly. 
Now the question arises – how can I best use sleep to my advantage? What are the DO’s and DON’T’s?
Let’s go through some common sleep myths, and hopefully, all your burning questions will be answered.
Myth No.1: “The older you are, the less sleep you need”
Sure, this is true when comparing adolescents to very young children. However, adolescents in high school DO NOT need less hours of sleep than, say, adolescents in middle school. They need the same amount, which depends on the individual, but is sometimes as long as ten hours. This is proven by the fact that most high school students who don’t need to get up early in the morning will often wake up only after a full ten hours of sleep. 
So why do we believe they need less, then?
There are two reasons: first, high school students usually go to sleep later than middle school students, and second, they start school earlier. Thus, their overall sleep time becomes shorter; and seeing how a majority of adolescents lives on seven-ish hours of sleep a night, we tend to believe they just need less of it – which simply isn’t true.  This was the reason for the recent debate about U.S. school starting times. Many think it would be more beneficial for students’ health if high school classes were to start an hour later than they currently do, and based on research, we can’t help but agree with that.
Myth No.2: “Adolescents’ brains are different, so they turn into night owls”
This is true, but there’s more to it. If you are an adolescent, especially one who considers themselves to be mature, chances are you start feeling sleepy later at night than you used to – this is a purely biological factor.  However, there are social factors as well, one of them being late-night social activities – like parties – that often start happening during adolescent years. Be that as it may, the biggest culprit is still technology.
Older students tend to spend more time using their smartphones, computers, and technology in general. And while too much time in front of a screen is harmful in itself, it also affects our sleep schedules. Screens we look at daily have a special type of light – blue light – that our brains read as a “wake up” signal. This is why most social networks have blue backgrounds – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr… So if you decide to “just check Facebook before bed”, you might find yourself still attached to your phone an hour later. Add this to an already delayed sleep schedule and you can begin to understand why most adolescents today suffer from sleep deprivation.  
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Myth No.3: “Naps are a valid replacement for night sleep”
Again, this statement is partially true. Naps can be extremely useful if you didn’t have enough sleep last night, or haven’t slept in a long time – but in the long run, not enough night sleep will cause you issues like diminished alertness, irritability, learning and memory problems, and micro-sleep – when you fall asleep for just a second or two, which can be deadly if you’re sitting behind a wheel. Therefore, naps shouldn’t be overused, but they can be useful if need be.
But now the question arises – what is a perfect nap?
First of all, you should nap in the afternoon; ideally, anywhere between noon and 2:00 p.m.  As for how long these naps should be, anything between 30 and 60 minutes is great.  You should be aware, though, that after you’ve awakened from a nap, you’re almost certain to experience sleep inertia – that feeling of sleepiness and fatigue that comes after a nap.  However, this usually passes after five to fifteen minutes, and then you’re good to go!
Myth No.4: “If you don’t have the time to sleep, energy drinks or coffee are a good substitute!”
The truth is, energy drinks can do more harm than good, especially if you have medical issues like diabetes or a heart condition. The amount of caffeine in energy drinks is not regulated and is usually through the roof; on top of that, energy drinks have sugar and additives such as guarana, to further help you stay awake.  So if you absolutely must stay awake, coffee is a better solution. But the problem here is the more you drink, the more you need to drink to stay awake. And if you drink coffee less than six hours before going to bed, you’re more likely to have trouble falling asleep. 
That’s why a short nap is a much healthier and more beneficial option. Another thing you can do (if you’re not a nap person, or you just can’t fit one in) is some brief exercise. It can be anything – sit-ups, squats, a short run – anything to get your heart rate and adrenaline up. After it, you’ll feel much more awake and without any of the side effects of energy drinks or coffee!
Helpful tips for a better sleep
Now that we’re at the end of our sleep-conversation, here are some helpful tips to make you feel more energetic and functional in the morning.
Growing up, adolescents start craving more and more independence, and one of these acts of independence is setting their own bed-time. And while this surely helps you feel more mature, it can often create issues when it comes to a sleep schedule. As mentioned before, it often means going to bed later and sleeping less. But if that is to be expected due to changes in the brain, how can it be countered?
Ideally, you will set your own bed-time no later than 11 p.m. If you do this enough times, your brain will rewire to accommodate the new sleep schedule. Next, you should try to create a relaxing pre-sleep atmosphere. It can be meditation or listening to some light and slow music, but the most important thing is – no loud noises and no screens! The best thing to do is to read a few pages of a book. It’s been shown that people who read before bedtime fall asleep faster and have a more quality sleep, than those who don’t. 
Finally, your sleep schedule should be consistent, no matter the day. An additional problem for adolescents is they tend to sleep much longer on weekends. It’s impossible to live on quality weekend sleep only – sleeping regularly every day is the way to go. Sleeping longer on weekends only confuses the body and it can’t revert to the weekday sleep schedule until, say, Wednesday. But just when it gets the hang of it – boom, it’s the weekend again! 
Following these rules, you shouldn’t have too many problems with sleeping, learning, or performing. But if you notice some problems still remain, experts are just a click away from helping you with that.
by Jelena Jegdić
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- Walker, M.P. et al. (2002). Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning. Neuron, Vol. 35, 205–211
- Carskadon, M.A. (2011). Sleep in Adolescents: The Perfect Storm. Pediatr Clin North Am; 58(3): 637–647
- Seifert, S. M. (2011). Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults. pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2009-3592
- Naitoh, P., Englund, C.E. & Ryman, D. (1982) Restorative power of naps in designing continuous work schedule. Human Ergol.,11, Suppl.: 259-278
- Gillberg, M. et al. (1996). The Effects of a Short Daytime Nap After Restricted Night Sleep. 19(7):570-575
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