Whether it’s social media, the transfer portal, coach turnover or name, image and likeness (NIL), NCAA student-athletes confront increasing pressure and uncertainty on and off the playing field. It’s anything but a “free ride.”
Bolder Buffs, CU Athletics’ peer advocacy program, has been bringing student-athletes’ psychological health concerns into the open since 2018. It’s a collaborative space to meet once a month, share personal challenges and learn to help peers.
“Bolder Buffs showed me that I wasn’t alone with my struggles,” said Issy Simpson (NeuroSci, Psych’23), a CU golfer.
CU Athletics’ Psychological Health and Performance (PHP) program provides clinical guidance for Bolder Buffs. Erin Rubenking (Fin’10; MPsych’14), PHP associate director and Bolder Buffs clinical advisor, started in 2018 as one of two full-time staff members. PHP’s full-time staff has since doubled, and there are several counseling trainees as well.
Soon after Rubenking’s arrival, soccer’s J.J. Tompkins (Psych’19) and women’s basketball’s Kennedy Leonard (Comm’19) founded Bolder Buffs with involvement from PHP.
“They saw a need for a place for student-athletes to discuss mental health, to figure out how to support teammates because they’re not therapists, they’re student-athletes,” said Rubenking.
Bolder Buffs trains student-athletes on three Rs: recognize, respond, refer. Bolder Buffs are not one-stop resources. They train to recognize if someone is struggling, respond supportively and connect them to appropriate resources.
In addition to direct advocacy, Bolder Buffs initiates change in PHP. “A lot of what we’re doing is informed by Bolder Buffs. If they’re struggling with something, I take that back to my team, and we can design a group, a staff training or something else,” said Rubenking.
Student-athlete-focused outcomes include 24/7 support through the Buffs Helpline (303-735-7182), a new Athletic Department policy giving them more control over collection and sharing of their body composition data, and training to help manage performance anxiety.
“Bolder Buffs has become part of my self-care routine. Plus, I can help others through what I’ve learned,” said Simpson.