Starting in 2022, California will become the first state in the U.S. to mandate later start times for public middle schools and high schools. By the start of the 2022-2023 year, middle schools will be required to start classes at 8 AM or later while high schools will be required to start at 8:30AM or later.
Early start times has always been a hot topic in swimming, as the sport has a uniquely-sadist view on early mornings (matched perhaps only by distance runners). In some parts of the country, pre-school practices require athletes to wake as early as 4AM. The problem is that, around the time that teenagers are starting middle school, they experience what’s called “sleep phase delay,” which changes their natural circadian rhythms. This makes it very difficult for teenagers to fall asleep before 11PM, and with the National Center on Sleep Disorders recommending 8-and-a-half to 10 hours of sleep per night for teenagers, this makes an early start time nearly impossible.
Multiple studies have shown that reduced sleep and early start times for schools reduces performance and physical health.
For its part, California is solving the issue for the majority of the student population, which now can at least sleep until 7:00 AM or 7:30 AM.
In some cases, for morning practices, this could be a blessing. A previous 5AM start time for a school that started at 7:00 AM, for example, could now become a 6AM start time for a school that started at 8:30 AM. That’s still not ideal, but it is a significant improvement.
On the flip-side, the later start time doesn’t produce more pools – which is a partial driver on the need for morning practices. Later start times could lead to a shift in the battle over morning practices, with programs that had previously lost on the debate over a 5AM or 5:30 AM start time now being able to make a better case for a 6AM or 6:30AM start time.
As an example of how this shift might change swimming programs, Tesoro High School, which was the highest-finishing public school at the 2019 CIF-Southern Section Division I girls’ swimming and diving championships, currently has a “Period 0” that starts at 6:40 AM, and a “Period 1” that starts at 7:52 AM. Period 0 is often a limited class or a co-curricular class like debate that is graded and where attendance is taken, but where enrollment is usually optional. For a student in a “Period 0,” a morning practice would (appear to be) essentially impossible, though a 5:45 AM practice seems within the realm of “make it work” plausibility.
While the new start time exempts “zero periods,” the mandatory later starting time would push zero periods to around 7:30 AM instead, and period 1 for those students without a zero period class to 8:30 AM. For those students without a zero period, a 90 minute 6:30 AM practice (or 2 hour 6:00 AM practice) will seem totally feasible.
There’s no good database of swim practice start times, and no readily-available information, so any shift in approach will be largely anecdotal – but it does give pause for thought as parents, coaches, and administrators weigh their new reality and how to adapt.
Below, listen to an episode of radio show The Takeaway on the subject of the new mandatory later start times. While not swimming specific, it touches on the challenges and opportunities of the new changes.