BroncoBOLD: Spreading awareness on student-athlete mental health

Boise State student-athletes are placed in the spotlight the moment they step on campus. From NIL brand deals, fan applause or facing backlash for their errors; athletes experience all aspects of publicity. 

For many, they have been dedicated to their sport all their lives and finally get to play at the collegiate level. Persistent practice is required and the constant pressure to maintain a high public status is often integral. 

Since being a student-athlete is seemingly glamorous, mental health can be neglected. 

Whether in uniform or not, an athlete’s presence on campus is prominent. Being a student-athlete creates a sense of community and identity and athletes are often admired and looked at as role models. 

The recognition of playing at the university level can boost self-esteem and garner much respect from peers. However, with such a glamorous demeanor, student-athletes may feel hesitant to speak out about potential vulnerabilities.

On top of the normal stressors of any college student; juggling finances, a social-life and academics, student-athletes face additional responsibilities that are incredibly demanding, such as maintaining strong physical health, seasonal athletic travel and oftentimes maintaining a strong public-image. With all of these extracurriculars, athletes can often find themselves leaving  social relationships outside of their sport and placing academics on the backburner. 

Record-breaking senior, Nyenuchi Okemgbo, clocking 8.63 in women’s 60-meter hurdles on Boise State Track & Field, highlights her experience with mental health as a student-athlete.

“Typically, when trying to prioritize my mental health between athletics and academics, I will do less schoolwork,” Okemgo said. “Performing and being there for my sport and team is the mandatory we sign up for during the season.”

Stephanie Donaldson, a former Division I swimmer and the director of athletic counseling and performance psychology for Boise State Athletics, is the faculty advisor of BroncoBOLD. 

BroncoBOLD is an initiative focusing on mental health programming and activities for Boise State student-athletes that was started by a group of student-athletes in 2019. BroncoBOLD  strives to normalize the conversation of mental health and overcome the stigma that is often plagued with the topic of mental health.

“When student-athletes are willing to talk about the importance of mental health and share their own lived experiences, there’s a sense of comfort in the commonality of the human experience,” Donaldson said. “When student-athletes utilize the platform of sport to champion this message, the impact can be profound.”

A leadership group of six student-athletes, including Okemgbo, currently serve on the BroncoBOLD leadership committee and are BroncoBOLD High School Ambassador Program Mentors. Okemgbo currently serves as Timberline high school’s mentor.  These student-athletes are selected each year through an application process. 

“I love seeing the high schoolers taking action to make mental health more talked about,” Okemgo said. “High school is a time that is difficult for many students. It’s great to see their care for their peers” 

Despite the six leadership positions that BroncoBOLD has for student-athletes, those who are not looking to serve at the leadership level are still able to sign up to volunteer at BroncoBOLD events hosted within athletics, on campus and around the community. 

During the fall 2023 semester, a record-breaking 376.5 hours of student-athlete’s time was spent in advocacy, service, learning and connection, according to Donaldson. 

At the beginning of their freshman year, all Boise State student-athletes go through a mandatory mental health training at the beginning of the year and all student-athletes have the opportunity to attend monthly “Mental Rep Talks” that cover a variety of topics that address mental well-being during their time at Boise State.

According to the NCAA, approximately 1.3 million injuries occur yearly among college athletes in the United States alone. Many athletes dream of continuing their sport by playing professionally, but these often inevitable injuries can either slow an athlete down or cost them their entire career. Transitioning out of competitive athletics can be incredibly challenging and may lead to feelings of loss of identity, depression and anxiety for the future.

Through destigmatizing and fostering a supportive environment, Boise State is dedicated to empower student-athletes to prioritize their mental well-being in order to optimize their overall performance both on and off the field. 

“To see the ripple effect of what started as a grassroots idea, blossomed into robust and impactful programming and community outreach has been incredible,” Donaldson said. “It definitely goes to show you the power sports can have to bring people and communities together. No matter what team you’re cheering for, we can all come together to create collective change in the way we talk about and approach mental health.”

Students across campus can be of support to spread advocacy and support student athletics through BroncoBOLD.

“We have undergraduate internships for non-student athletes,” Donaldson said. “We also partner with the Dean of Students office and BroncoFIT to provide joint programming for the entire campus.”

BroncoBOLD’s focus on proactive prevention encourages multiple avenues of a “strengths-based” approach. Building healthy coping skills, engaging support systems and encouraging self-discovery should be an ongoing process. BroncoBOLD instills protocols and raises the importance of teaching students what to do when there’s a medical emergency involving someone’s physical health with an underline prioritizing that mental health shouldn’t be looked at any differently.

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