Call it a resurgence, a second-coming, if you like. Just don’t call it a comeback. For 15 years, inspirational Port Adelaide midfielder Travis Boak has been the embattled club’s north star. A true heart-on-his-sleeve warrior, Boak has carved out a career that few players could hold a candle to. A three-time All-Australian, dual John Cahill Medallist and three-time Showdown Medallist, the Port Adelaide games record holder has been there through a decade of heartache and turmoil. Now, at the ripe old age of 33, when others are looking to hand the baton over, Boak is playing his best footy yet.
The Red Bull athlete has transformed his mind and body over the past four years, setting an incredible precedent for those nearing the end of their careers. Like Boomer Harvey and Dustin Fletcher before him, Boak is proving that age really is just a number and that sporting glory doesn’t have to end at 30.
“There’s no doubt you face a few more challenges as you get older and a few more doubts start to creep in – “Can I still do it? Am I still quick enough?” But that’s when purpose takes over and you remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing – to continue to inspire others to reach their potential,” Boak tells us. “For me, that’s why I get out of bed and try to improve myself because I want to change the whole perspective on post-30 athletes. That’s my purpose at the moment. I couldn’t care less about how old I am. When I’m around a group like this Port Adelaide footy club, they just want to get better. It inspires me to want to do the same.”
“I’ll make mistakes, I fail, but that’s just part of being human, and that’s how you learn.”
It’s almost impossible to imagine the elevator doors were closing on Boak just a few short years ago. In 2018, when many, including his coach Ken Hinkley, thought he was in the twilight of his career, Boak had the club captaincy lifted from his shoulders. While that may have been a gut-wrenching acknowledgement that the end was nigh for most athletes, for Boak, it meant something entirely different. With the burden of expectation no longer weighing him down, the Alberton idol found a new lease on life, free to step back from football and work on himself. As the All-Australian explains, it was the first time Travis Boak – the person was allowed to break free from Travis Boak – the footballer.
“I look back on the whole journey, I realise that my football worth and my worth as a person was attached to that captaincy. And I think the majority of the world is like that,” Boak tells us. “What we don’t realise is that creates so much pressure and anxiety in our lives, that it’s hard getting out of bed and facing the day, knowing that what you do dictates who you are. That’s a tough place to live, and that was me for a long period of time.”
Listening to Boak speak, his solution sounds almost counter-productive. In his words, the secret to being successful on the field was caring less about what happened on the scoreboard. Even now, he sits in front of us, just minutes after an agonising loss to Geelong, his childhood club and the very outfit that famously tried to lure him back in 2012, and yet he remains entirely composed and calm. Far from the scorned footballer levelled by loss that Aussie sports fans have come to expect, Boak is a testament to self-awareness and maturity, even in the midst of heartache.
“It still hurts, and we’re still pissed off. Those angers and frustrations, they’re still there,” he says. “That’s part of being human. You have emotions. But it’s the perspective of not attaching it to who you are as a person. I still feel vulnerable going out and playing a game of footy, but my perspective on the result has changed a lot more. I know now that I just need to keep reminding myself of what to focus on, and what’s important, and that the result doesn’t dictate who I am, and how I go out there. It’s a continued practice.”
“In life, it’s all about loving what you do, who you are, and not the outcome of what you do.”
It’s a unique perspective that is laid bare in the new documentary Travis Boak: All Too Human. Directed by acclaimed documentarian Pete Williams in collaboration with the Port Adelaide Football Club and Red Bull Australia, the film chronicles Boak’s unique personal journey to separate mind from matter. Philosophical theory may be a tall order for a sporting doco, but it’s hard not to take at least some small portion of Boak’s mindset away from the final product.
“A lot of it is simply self-awareness and self-discovery – ‘What don’t I like about myself, that I’m using my achievements, or what I do, how much I make, what people think of me as my worth, what part of me wasn’t I really accepting?’,” Boak says. “There are always stories in our head, particularly growing up, where we tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough in some way, that is causing us to really focus on the external more than the internal. I guess that’s the journey we’re all on, we’re understanding who we are and liking the parts of ourselves that we never really liked so much. It sounds simple on paper, but it’s not.”
Longevity in the AFL
Fans of the AFL will note, stories of Boak’s on-field demise have been greatly exaggerated. While the world waits for the Port Adelaide star to slow down, he’s doing anything but, taking the lessons he’s learned through gratitude and applying them to his training methodology. And like most things, it was spurred by frustration.
“It felt like all I was doing was just training, running and gym, and that was it. I just thought “There has to be more to being a better athlete.”
In early 2017, on the advice of Port Adelaide head of high-performance Ian McKeown, Boak ventured overseas for an innovative and experimental training campaign that has since become the staple for premier players like Marcus Bontempelli and Scott Pendlebury. The high-altitude, all-terrain performance regime is designed to not only test the body, but also the mind – something Boak was acutely prepared for.
“As soon as I made those changes, my footy started getting a lot better and I started to understand, “Hang on. I can push myself so much further with who I am as an athlete, just by doing some different things,” he says. “Now, I think AFL players and the AFL industry is delving more into the mental side of sport because that is the biggest part of footy. The physical does come. We’re all very fit athletes. We train hard. We run hard, and we’re in the gym a lot. But if you can train your mind to be relaxed and calm under pressure, then that element is heightened within the game of footy.”
Truly, at age 33, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve still got a lot of good years left in you, but in the sporting arena, your thirties hit harder than any opponent ever could. The rapid decline of athleticism leaves many stars a shadow of their former selves, but not Boak. Where a battle-scarred journeyman should stand, a youthful prizefighter in the prime of his life beams proudly, just minutes after a bruising encounter with the top-of-the-table Cats. Looking at the former Port Adelaide captain in the flesh, it’s hard to imagine he’s going anywhere, any time soon.
“There are still ups and downs, but the more you connect with your authenticity, and what you love to do, it doesn’t matter how you do,” he says. “There’s no way I could achieve what I wanted in footy, if I didn’t accept the person that I am, and unconditionally love the person I am. That’s what I’m most proud of. It’s a pretty special place to be where you can let go of caring what other people think, and just focus on what you love. I just want to squeeze everything out of myself while I can.”
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