In 2013, at the age of 18, Tom Boyd was undeniably the best junior footballer in Australia and was first pick in the AFL National Draft. After the beginning of an illustrious career in the game, however, things began to become unstitched. Tom ultimately made the tough decision mid-way through the 2019 season to walk away from his career with 2 years and over $2 million remaining on his contract, wanting to carve his own path and destiny.
Tom joined us to talk about his inspirational personal story and how he manages his mental health on a daily basis.
Speaker 1 (0:00)
We acknowledge the lives lost to suicide and recognise those who have survived suicide attempts and those who struggle today or in the past with thoughts of suicide, mental health issues and crisis situations. We acknowledge all those who have felt the deep impact of suicide, including those who love, care, and support people experiencing suicidality and those experiencing the pain and bereavement through suicide. We respect collaboration with people who have a lived or living experience of suicide and mental health issues and value their contribution to the work we do.
As a 22-year-old, I got to the point where I hadn't slept in weeks, I was starting to get injured, I was starting to get sick, and I was really struggling with just trying to get through day-to-day life.
Speaker 1 (0:42)
Welcome to Holding onto Hope, a series that shares the stories of everyday Australians that have experienced moments in crisis and found a path to support. Whilst all of the stories shared offer hope and inspiration, at times, you may hear something you find triggering. If you or someone you know needs crisis support, please phone Lifeline on 1311 14 Text 0477 1311 14 or visit lifeline.org.au/get Help for lifeline chat service, which is 24/7.
Hello, and thank you for joining me. I'm Ruben and I'm a volunteer telephone crisis supporter at Lifeline. I'm one of the voices you may hear if you call for support. At the age of 15, I lost my dear father to suicide. Ever since that fateful day, I always wished my father had the opportunity to talk to someone like me when he needed it the most. 13 years later, and four years into my journey with Lifeline, I'm now part of that opportunity. And this is why I'm so passionate about hosting this series.
If you're not quite ready to talk, perhaps you'll find comfort in listening to the stories of people who have experienced the value of reaching out for help.
In 2013, at the age of 18, Tom Boyd was undeniably the best Junior footballer in Australia and was the first pick in the AFL national draft. After the beginning of an illustrious career in the game, things began to become unstitched. Tom ultimately made the tough decision midway through the 2019 season to walk away from his career with two years and over $2 million remaining on his contract, wanting to carve his own path and destiny. Tom is joining us today to talk about his inspirational personal story and how he manages his mental health on a daily basis. At only 27, it is safe to say that Tom has huge life experience and I'm sure you're looking forward to hearing more about it just as much as I am.
Tom, it's nice to finally see you face to face. I really do appreciate your time. You've obviously had your career in AFL and what you've done now, the work that you do in mental health. Are you able to sort of take us back to a younger time, you know, maybe when you're 14/15, going through your growing years?
It’s probably worth going back even just a little bit further to when I first started playing sports from a really young age. It was the thing that interested me most a lot of basketball, a lot of football. I always idolised my father. He really was sort of a local legend in the eastern Football League, which is where I grew up playing my junior sport. And I think from a young age that passion helped me play well on the field, sort of helped me get over the humps and bumps of a notoriously difficult sport, particularly football. And look, basketball has its challenges as well. But the other thing really helped me was that in my first year of school, I grew 27 centimetres from the start of the year to the end, that sort of continued as I went through the ranks as I went through sort of interleague sides, and then you got to the next level sort of zone or regional, whatever they call it at that stage. But eventually, I ended up being the captain of the Victorian State football started at the age of 16, playing a national carnival up in Blacktown, actually, they just launched the new facility for the Giants at the time. And simultaneously that year, I'd gone through the State Basketball process and it really got to the point where it was just overwhelming. I mean, I was doing, I think 11 or 12 sessions a sport a week, I was travelling most weekends around the state. Then obviously, once the carnivals kicked in, I started going around the country as well. And finally, my body started to tell me that, you know, Paul, you weren't as invincible as I'd been telling myself for a long time. And I had to actually go down the path of choosing a sport. I had this really good tension between my parents basically saying, you know, academics comes first education comes first and then me saying ‘‘well, I'm going to get drafted, eventually, I'm getting closer and closer, and it's becoming more and more difficult for them to tell me what to do’’. But I'm really thankful for that because I was able to get a really good score at school and do quite well in that as well as my football and I was a really happy kid. I was really high functioning. I was particularly successful when I was comparing myself to my cohort or broadly to the population. And I loved the sort of balance that I had in my life, right? I was able to spend my intellectual energy on my school and to a degree my football, but I was able to sort of exert myself physically and emotionally on the football field and build myself up and try and get to where I wanted to get to and eventually get drafted as the first overall pick by the GWS giants in 2013.
What was going on for you then? What feelings were you experiencing at the time?
I think my first four into what I now know to be my mental health challenges happen when I moved states. To give you a bit of a picture, you know, within 10 days of your final school exam, I was running laps up in Sydney and my first training session and you know, within that 10 day period, I think what's overlooked at times is you got all these kids just move states play footy. But that's an 18-year-old who has lived at home all his life had a pretty sheltered life, spent my time and energy at football and at school, and that was about it. So, it was transitioning from being a boy to an adult that to look after himself. Now there were things that were sort of put in place to mitigate that, but it was still a big move. The biggest change, I would say is just the financial connection between playing football for your vocation is a completely different scenario to place yourself in, compared to when you're just choosing to turn up and play and enjoy yourself and be with your mates and be with the community clubs. And obviously, as you go through the ranks of their sort of higher levels, it gets more serious, but there's still no money tied to it. So it's a bit different. And those two things I think that popped into my life with regards to the mental health side of things was what I would first call being nervous all the time, I would liken it to like before you do say a big speech at school, or a test or a game of football, something you care about that you know you need to perform well at it was like I was feeling that way all the time. And particularly when I have downtime.
Was that every day for you?
That really started to permeate into the nights where I would really struggle to get to sleep. And that didn't make a lot of sense to me. Given that I've been a touristic good sleeper, I was currently doing the most physically and mentally exerting period of time that I'd ever been through yet I was sleeping less than I ever had. And what I did to sort of combat that was really withdraw from my teammates, not in any sense of ‘I don't want to hang out with him’. I just didn't have the capacity mentally or emotionally and I was so fatigued all the time that I sort of tried to spend time on my off days, really just refreshing myself getting out to the beaches, or whatever I could do just to try and get the energy dirt to come back and have a good day the next day. So that, yeah, sort of played both for and against me and gave me a little bit of reprieve, but at the same time it gave I think people the impression that I was standoffish and yeah, sort of doubled down on the challenges I was facing giving the, yeah, I sort of felt like I was pretty alone at the time.
Whether it's a win, or it's uh, congratulations from your coach or your peers or your family, did you ever feel that there was added pressure there that you're able to deal with? Or did you ever struggle to deal with that pressure? Or was it very much, just, hey, I'm going through the motions. And I want to get to the next step.
As I went through the ranks, the funny thing was the pressure mounted, but so did my performance. So, I really sort of met that added pressure with added validation because I kept succeeding. And I think this is the case for many young guys who are coming through the ranks of the AFL draft system and the talent pathways that are associated with it, which is you can never really know how far off you are or how close you are to the AFL standard that you're eventually hopefully going to find yourself in because each year is different in terms of the quality of talent, but also in the quantity. So there are games where you play against, you know, particularly as a key forward as I was, someone who is never going to play even significant VFL or state-level footy. They're just the biggest guy that they can find to hang on to you for the day. That's why the national carnivals are such a validator for people who are trying to recruit because it is truly the best of the best of the best, maybe 100 kids in the country. And thankfully, look, I played particularly well at that level as well, which was for me a great validation because in previous years at the under-16 carnival, I'd struggled as well. But I played basically in a qualifying game, which was intended to be part of sort of the filtering out of players towards the Victorian Stateside in 2011. As a 15-year-old, you play for your club, and then you get selected at the state level. So I was playing for the Eastern Rangers will play the game against I think Dandenong in the last quarter, a ball spilt out there sort of back of the pack, I picked it up at a quick stop and missed the goal. It was probably 15 metres out, I should have kicked it was a bit of a gimme. And I walked into the club rooms after the game, pretty chuffed, you know, kick seven goals. And I think anyone else who kicked more than to the senior coach or the NBA teams coach at the time, who I'd never met before, came in and basically barreled me for five minutes. And he was saying you got ahead of yourself and you're being selfish and you should handle that bowl, and I'm sitting there going ‘’hang on a minute like I've kicked seven have probably had a hand and another half dozen teammates have been involved. I've tackled Jason in everything possible and this guy's picking out one moment to really sort of hold me to the fire over’’. I went back at him at that time. Because one, I didn't know who he was so it didn't help. But two, it was just it felt like that was probably the first insight I got into this sort of addiction to perfection. And funnily enough, the reason why I left basketball, in the end, was partially that attitude, that sort of sinister, ‘let's beat the kid's down thing’ really didn't sit that well with me and didn't feel like it was getting the best out of the most amount of people. I continued to use that as fuel but eventually, you've got to get to the point where you're comfortable in your own skin and you know who you are. And unfortunately, it probably took me another seven or eight years from that moment to actually work that out.
Were there those times when you are finding not as enjoyable, what made you really want to step away from football altogether?
I think like most people, we look at life and we go, what's the next thing that I want to accomplish? And you know, if I'm struggling a little bit, as long as I get there, once I get that next thing, it'll be okay. And we'll move on. And I'm the first time that I'd really made the mistake, which I made probably once or twice in my life where I said, ‘’Hey if I just get this thing, it'll be all good. Don't worry about like, once I get to this, A plus B equals C, I'll be okay’’. And so when I got sat down by my dad and told me that the Western Bulldogs about for me seven years $7 million contract to return, which would have been the second biggest deal in history, and I'm 18 years old, have played sort of five games. At this stage, I remember being absolutely knocked off my sort of my seat by the magnitude of the deal, but also by the opportunity again, to get back to Victoria and get back to the things that I was more comfortable with and keen to do. So, with that came this sort of concept that everything will be great again, on this big money moved away from a club that's probably a little bit less culturally good as good fit as the one that I was going to, the sleep issues and the issues of anxiety. And later, the issues with depression came back not only from the year that I'd spent up in Sydney, but it got significantly worse. So basically, between 2015 and the end of 2016, when we ended up winning the premiership went through this cycle that continued to get worse, where essentially, I wouldn't sleep after a Thursday night training session, that I wouldn't sleep on a Friday night, and I play a full game of AFL football, and basically not sleep after that as well. And particularly after games where I'd either played poorly or the team had lost, that's when I had my first real significant brushes with depression. After I found myself three days removed, having done a 10k session, a 4k session, and all the things that sit around that as well as playing a game of what I consider the hardest sport in the world AFL football without any sleep. Once we went through 2016, my blinders were on in the sense that ‘’hey, if we just keep going and just keep going and keep going and get to this ultimate glory, everything's going to be great’’. And we went on a historical run first team to ever win from seventh position at the end of the season at the HomeAway ladder first team to basically run the gauntlet from seven all the way through winning four games on the tribe to the interstate we're underdogs for every game that we played, including the grand final. And I remember after the grand final standing on the stage of the MCG, 99,981 people in attendance, 21 years old, getting paid a million dollars a year to the game that I've loved since I was five, and going like what are they going to say now, like what could possibly go wrong? Now I've just made absolute history by being a part of something that people will remember for the rest of their lives. Eight or nine days after that I went for my first surgery, shoulder reconstruction, which was incredibly painful. Two weeks after that, I get an ankle cleanout. And I spent the next sort of four weeks on a crutch and in a sling and remember walking back into the football club after not being able to run or do anything significant from a physical point of view for our entire offseason. And just having this enormous sense of sort of dread that I wasn't going to be able to climb that mountain again. And that was when things particularly started to get out of control. And to kind of long story short in July, or it might have been June 2017, as a 22-year-old, I got to the point where I hadn't slept in weeks, and I was starting to get injured, I started to get sick, and I was really struggling with just trying to get through day-to-day life.
Speaker 1 (13:15)
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What was your first step in getting support?
I just realised that there was absolutely no possible way that I was going to be able to get through a game of football, there's no way mentally no way physically. I need to change, picked up the phone called the club psychologist and for the first time my young life asked for help to deal with the things that were going on.
What do you think was holding you back from getting support?
You know no small part of the help that I needed was to navigate the politics and the personnel that are associated with a player who's earning as much money as I was to play football at the top level in you know, sort of hottest football market in the country. And you know, obviously the world. So that was incredibly challenging. It got me to a point where basically I realised that just need to take a break. I remember one of the most significant things that happened in that period was they sat me down and they asked me: ‘’what do you want to say to the media? What story do you want to tell?’’ You know, we can say you have personal issues, you’re on leave or, you know, family or something like that. And like it just seemed like such a strange question to ask someone who was struggling as much as I was, let's put this kid who's in an incredibly vulnerable position into a position where the media are trying to find out a lie that you've told them. Even then it seemed just crazy to say and, you know, I responded I think at the time basically saying the truth. I'd like to respond with the truth or at least at a later date.
Were they able to give you the support or was it very much a gradual process?
I spoke to the psych about it, Lisa who's been incredible support of mine and basically said like ‘’yeah, I want to tell people what's actually going on’’. And the reason for that was twofold. One, because I felt like was the right thing to do. But two, I didn't want to sit there, you know, as a player who was getting paid as much as I wasn't like ‘’yeah, I'm sad, I just want to play this weekend’’.. These are the things that are going on, it's physically preventing me from doing my job, I can't play, I can't train getting injured, I'm getting sick, I can't concentrate. And I'm actually at risk to not only perform poorly but actually injuring myself further or perhaps doing damage that may be irreparable. So that was a really important stage for me to try and pick up the pieces of what was, you know, on paper, the perfect existence, but unfortunately, from my own experience certainly wasn't succumb to a couple of really significant back injuries actually, which ended up being the last day of Hogans of playing 2018. And I remember, once I started experiencing this back injury, I could sense it, it was really weighing on my experience as a person again, and it wasn't that I was going back to where I'd been, it was certainly just giving me that sense of hey, I've been through this stuff before. And I don't want to go back, I spoke to the club doctor at the end of 2018. And basically said, Gaz, ‘’I think I'm gonna give it away.’’ And he goes, Tom, I've seen this too many times before, guys who are injured guys who are rehabilitating injuries, they always throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, basically, the life lesson of don't make life-changing decisions when you're too happy, mad or angry, because you're not in a mindset where you're thinking long term. So I did what Gary said, I got back to playing footy the following year in the VFL. And quite quickly realised that I don't myself the justice of getting myself back on the field, but the passion for the game was gone. And the reality of it was that getting paid a million dollars a year to play footy means that you're taking three other people's jobs. And probably in reality, you probably take more like five, because that's just the mechanics of the salary cap in the AFL. And I felt incredibly disingenuous to continue on to take the paycheck, which I've seen many players do over the years. And what invariably happens is everyone dislikes and their relationships break down and their lack of authenticity and inability to be honest with where they're at in terms of their aptitude to still play the game. I wasn't willing to go through that. And that's only best represented by the fact that when I stood there, in front of the playing list, lucky enough to get a retirement speech, I got up there and basically said two things. I said ‘’to all of you in the room, just want to say thank you, you're the reason I lasted as long as I did, certainly not the reason I'm going and in particular to the players if you're thinking about negotiating your salary, now be a good time because I hear there's a bit of extra money in the cap for the next 12 to 24 months.’’ And everyone laughed because I think the room was quite tense. And you know, that was sort of the last, the last thing that I was able to leave the club with, and again, walk out into the rest of my life with a smile on my face, and the choice being my own.
Where you are right now and we always think that we can always do it ourselves. And sometimes we're afraid of reaching out for that support, you told me that there's still a lot going on with work, but also, you know, within your own sort of life and circle, what supports do you draw on at the moment that keep you doing you but also keeps you still you know, mentally capable of, you know, giving as much as you have to take on as well?
I think as people I mean, you know, one of the things that have happened certainly in the mental health space over the last probably 10 years has been that there have been examples, I think where the well-intended people who are trying to make an impact get burnt out basically by oversharing. And saying yes to everything, and basically trying to do that on top of their own lives and family and work and they just become a really, really difficult proposition. So one of the things that I looked at as an overload over the last few years is when it comes to the work side of things, I try and get quality over quantity. I mean, I can spend all day every day doing every single podcast and media article and social media thing or whatever it is speaking you don't work for every charity under the sun and everyone will have me and utilise the reach and the impact that hopefully I can make with them. But that's only going to do a disservice to my own sort of ability to sustain it. That's why I've chosen organisations like Lifeline to work more intimately with as opposed to doing any sort of everyone all the time. What I do need is the ability that I've learned, I think to basically make sure that a bad day doesn't turn into a bad week or week to a month. And I think to know when to put the foot down and really try and push through things, whether they'd be work family or otherwise, then sometimes when just to pull the foot off the pedal and basically say that I need a spell. That's not always the easiest thing to do. Certainly has its challenges at times. But I think it's just a different proposition to the one that I previously had, which was just sprint, and sprint and sprint and sprint and hope that everything works out and never really spent the time sort of reconciling what's going on in your life and where you can get better and you know what you actually need at any one moment.
Skipping back to your 16-year-old self, prior to everything that's gone on and where you are today. If you could tell your 16-year-old self anything, what would it be?
I really can't stay away from advising young people on anything much more and saying hey, this is what happened to me. The one thing that I did particularly poorly is again, I thought I was the most unique individual on Earth. And you know, many people do think though we all think that no one would understand our problems or challenges or triumphs, or whatever they may be, because hey, I'm an individual, and I'm unique, and you are everyone is, but at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, there's so much shared wisdom in the people around you, there's so much shared experiences, so much strength and opportunity to learn from those who are close to you. And that those of you who you trust and also, you know, interpret information that you receive through various mediums and keep what's useful, and throughout the rest. So I did that very poorly, I did everything on my own, I thought that I needed to work it out on my own, I thought that no one can help me or that, in fact, I will be a burden to others by accessing support, whether that be from coaches or players or, you know, professionals or whatever it may be. That was a mistake. That was something that I did well and it's something that I've had to learn a lot from. And again, as I mentioned earlier, I think important life lessons often take a few times to learn, particularly to stick and that's one of them that I particularly probably took a while to get my head around and, just gaining the humility and the understanding that you don't know everything you've learned, I think we do. And I often tell people that the best thing that I've had in the last five or six years, as I look back every couple of years, or even sooner and just go, I was such an idiot 12 to 24 months ago. And that's the whole point, right? The point is, if you think that you had it figured out 12 months ago, nothing's changed, well, likely the world is moving forward, and you're falling behind. So for me, it was making sure that you access support from others and try and learn as much and, and garner as much strength from the people around you, as opposed to just doing it on your own.
But in terms of self-care, you still you know, like to have those moments where you can head out to the surf and do you feel like when you said, you know, I'd love to have those moments where I'm just, you know, in the ocean with myself, you know, we talk about it Lifeline, the ability to you know, self-care, because we often on the phones have to take on a lot of people's emotions for a long period of time. And we use self-care quite a lot to keep us in good stead because you'll suddenly shift from being in your own environment to then on the phones and switching out of that, do you find that you're still able to have that time and to have self-care?
Yeah, I do. I think it's just different fundamentally for me than what it used to be because I think I always felt like I was battling against my profession, in a way. So football was such a sort of cup-emptying exercise that I need to fill it up all the time. Whereas I get so much enjoyment and fulfilment, out of the work that I do now, I get so much fulfilment and enjoyment out of, you know, being with Hannah and being with my daughter, Amani, that there is a large sort of self-care piece by just connecting and doing the work that I do. And then of course, you know, I think from a sort of practical point of view, at times, I just need to put the headphones in and do some work that just takes me out of the busyness of the world that we live in. And that's a big part of it for me. But again, I've been trying to get down the coast and serve every other day or every other week is not what it used to be. But you do need to find things to replace some of those things, perhaps you utilise, as you said, in the self-care space previously. So I certainly have a larger array of things that support me, but it's just yet it's just different than what it used to be and life changes. And I think you know, one of the things that I'd like to think I've been pretty good at over the last little while at least is that I'm pretty good at understanding when to turn the page, more so as in just recognising when things aren't working and you’re ready to move on, regardless of the consequences, just trust your instinct to say, ‘’okay, this is time to go to the next thing and continue to evolve as time progresses.’’
What is next for you?
The next 12 months at least continue doing what I'm doing. I have a really nice mix between working for a technology business called Overperformed, three days a week, the ambassadorships that I have with WorkSafe and Lifeline making an impact in the mental health space, whether that be sort of more broadly speaking with the campaign's that lifeline have bought more targeted in the country communities that WorkSafe working with. I'm also lucky enough to do a lot of the speaking stuff and praise an eight-month-old who's becoming more of a handful by the day and continue to do the work that I do. But yeah, it's going to be a busy 12 months coming up and post the wedding and forward to some real r&r, rest and recovery before big 12 months ahead.
Well, look for the next 12 months, I certainly wish you all the best. And you know, for whatever comes next. I really do. Thank you, especially on behalf of Lifeline as well for the work that you do and will hopefully continue to do I really do think you're doing an amazing job. And for yourself. I just wanted to thank you again for the help that you're doing and for what you're able to do with Lifeline and for the podcast that we've done today.
Yeah, thank you, Ruben, for having me and thanks for the work that you do as well. I'm really looking forward to continuing to do the work that I do with Lifeline for a couple of years to come at least.
Speaker 1 (24:37)
Thanks for listening to Holding on to Hope the podcast. Lifeline is grateful to all Holding on to Hope participants for choosing to share their personal lived experiences openly and courageously. In order to offer hope and inspiration to others. Your act of kindness makes for a better world. And remember - if you or someone you know needs crisis support, please phone Lifeline on 13 11 14, text 0477 1311 14 or visit lifeline.org.au/get Help for Lifeline chat service which is 24/7.