I’m often asked, do I define myself as a ‘footballer player’ or is there more to Tom Boyd than just what people see on TV?

It’s interesting. I suppose when you’re trying to define yourself it’s always a difficult task.

I mean, everyday people obviously work in a number of different industries, and for myself being a footballer it takes a big chunk of my life but I’d like to think that I have a lot of other things that define me as well.

I think over the past eighteen months, I’ve done a better job of spreading myself out and turning myself into a more holistic human being.

That takes times and that time to mature and get your head around who your are and try to identify yourself as a footballer and also a person as well.

There’s a lot of parts to who I am.

I’m a guy who grew up in the Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne. I love my local footy club, the Norwood Football Club. I spent a lot of time down in Anglesea as a kid – surfing, swimming, mucking around being normal like everyone else I guess.

From a holistic point of view, I’ve obviously invested a lot of time throughout my life into football but also into my studies, hobbies and a number of other things as well.

Tom Boyd exclusive insight

I’ve made no secret that the last 12 months have been quite a challenging period in my life. It’s really been the last three years, if I am to be honest.

It all probably started when I went up to Sydney to play for the Greater Western Sydney, when I was just an 18 year old kid who got drafted ten days after I finished high school. Throughout teat time I started having a few issues with a few different things mental health wise.

It was something I wasn’t really educated on at the time and I was really struggling to sleep and having a few anxiety issues but I sort of just narrowed it all down to being home sickness or caused by the stresses of AFL footy.

Towards the back end of that year when I got traded to the Western Bulldogs I honestly just thought it was all going to be left behind and I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.

I suppose over the last few years I gradually developed more severe mental health issues and landed in some hot water in the mid-point of last year where I was really having some severe anxiety and struggling with a fair bit of depression.

I probably had a couple of months there where I barely slept at all and where I was having issues with the balance in my life.

It was a pretty dark time for me but I think you learn the most about yourself in those periods and for me it was probably a real turning point in terms of being able to tool myself with all the things I need to be able to deal with a condition that has been quite prevalent in my family history.

I understand that “narrative” surrounding my mental health issues have been exacerbated by such things as the pressure of my contract with the Bulldogs, how high I went in the draft, the general pressure of AFL football and the fact I was so young dealing with high level stresses.

It’s hard to predict how your life would have gone if it was different but mental health issues are clearly associated with your circumstances as well as your genetic disposition and your ability to deal with challenges in your life.

Tom Boyd exclusive insight

I think because I had put it off for so long and had no prior education about it and probably wasn’t able to face up and realise that what was going on inside my head wasn’t normal.

I really put myself in a position where I was struggling to get by. It can be a really hard thing to deal with, it’s a hard thing to admit to yourself and a hard thing to face.

Once I did look hard at myself, through various avenues of speaking to psychologists and psychiatrists and getting my head into a space when I realised that what was going on wasn’t normal but that it was [manageable] and treatable and that I was going to get better, it was a lot easier to deal with.

During that period of 2017 off-season, I definitely began changing my perspective on mental illness? I sought to implement a number tactics and strategies to help get myself feeling better and back to playing football again.

I think the key point in regards to missing football was my issue with sleep.

As I mentioned, I really hadn’t slept properly in a couple of months and I was getting up each morning feeling really dizzy. I couldn’t concentrate.

My fatigue levels were so high that I could barely train and that was the catalyst for me taking time off.

As much as my mood issues were a struggle and they would have been really prevalent over the 18 eighteen months; the Grand Final and Premiership sort of masked the quite severe issues I was having throughout the 2016 season.

Throughout the 2017 season, I started being more aware that what was going was starting to get worse.

Being able to get on top of my sleep and learning the tools to deal with my anxiety and bad moments in my life were the key things that I needed to get on top of, for me to able to get through the hard times.

The goal of getting back to playing footy last year was really clear and I did that towards the back end of the season – I only missed about 6 or 7 weeks.

The main thing for me was to be able to have that as a goal but a timeframe wasn’t set in stone.

The process of trying to deal with the issues I was going through without having that massive burden of playing football at the time was a key part in allowing me to make up some ground.

In that middle part of the year where all those things were going wrong – I had been injured, I couldn’t train, I couldn’t sleep – a number of  things snowballed to the point where I couldn’t get out there and give my best on the weekend.

That lead me to say “Alright, how-about we try and fix the root of these problems now?” That put me in a good place to get back by the end of the year and move positively into the future.

I think throughout difficult times and particularly with mental health issues, you develop a strong self awareness and that’s something I’ve developed over the last couple of years.

You don’t realise when you’re going through the hard time that you’re learning about yourself more than ever and that you’re equipping yourself with tools that help in every day – to deal with trauma and help you be more resilient.

It’s something that’s probably glossed over a fair bit because we spend so much time on our bodies and training ourselves to be the best athletes but I suppose going through those moments where I was having panic attacks driving and I thought I was going to crash and really struggling to get through bad moments, I realised how useless my body was if I couldn’t get my hand in the right space to operate it.

Over that time the best thing that I did was look at my life and release that as much as footy has been a challenge it’s something that I do enjoy – provided that I get the rest of the things in my life right.

The Bulldogs were an incredible support for me. We have a full-time psychologist who’s available to all players.

I think that everyday, the AFL and sports within Australian are slowing learning, and developing their skillset to help young individuals.

All the research has suggested that young men are really bad at identifying issues within themselves but they are quite good at helping identify them within their friends and helping others.

The constant conversation around trying to change the stigma towards mental illness and the culture within Australia has been really positive.

I think you’ll see steps within the industry to talk about how we prevent mental illness and how we equip kids with skills, through school, through football and through other avenues to better cope with challenges in their lives.

Through my experiences, I think I have become hyper-sensitive to how I am feeling and that’s helped me react quicker to small changes in my mood and in my general life.

I think your ability as an individual to get on top of how you’re feeling and understand what’s going on inside your head is the key point because in those moments, I can now quickly do something – whether it’s progressive muscle relaxation or going for a walk or going to the beach – I can do any of those things to offset any bad times that I’m going through.

Being really clear about what my triggers are – whether that’s lack of sleep or stressful experiences in footy or in life – means that my ability to be aware and deal with it quickly has helped me through the six to eight months.

I think the whole attitude in Australia to mental health has changed, and quite abruptly in the last few years in particular.

In the AFL, we are heralded as ‘invincible’ and we are role models or athletes who are put on a pedestal but the environment we are in is subject to high stress and challenges on a daily basis and that makes players susceptible to issues if they’re not equipped to deal with the rigours of AFL footy.

I think there has been a clear change, however. We have seen past players and current players talk about issues that they have had mental health wise.

I think that the normalisation of the issue by saying, “this is out there, it’s something we all have to deal with and be aware of” is a key point in being able to deal with it in the future.

As sportspeople, we definitely have a responsibility to change from within the industry the negative stigma that for so many years has surrounded the topic of mental health.

I think the constant education to the media and to all people about what mental health is and how real it is, is always going to be important.

I am not seeking to be an advocate or change anything culturally, but from my perspective and via my own personal story I have gotten a lot of feedback about how it’s helped some people.

I think I have a certain responsibility as a role-model, as an AFL footballer, to put my story out there and try to create some positive change if I can.

Being open about it is the best way I know how.

Aspects of mental health are directly correlated with your personal experiences – whether that’s within AFL, or sport or your job – and obviously that vindictive approach to players and their performance is always going to be a challenge but it is also something that deeply entrenched in a competitive environment.

I think it comes back to the player’s ability to identify what the key messages are from coaching groups and staff to try to facilitate in your mind that notion that “they’re trying to help me get better” or “this is what /I need to take out this message” without taking as personally as it might come across.

With millennials coming in there is a change of culture and a change of understanding that the modern norms are the same as what they were in the past.

We will all have to strive forward to better equip ourselves to deal with criticism and feedback personally and to assist people who are going through bad times and to also help each other to prevent issues from happening.

Sport is often used to promote physical health and well being, and in particular the AFL has been doing a tremendous job to promote the importance of mental health in our game.

Clearly our platforms as professional sports people are larger than the average person’s.

From my personal experience, there are very few conversations happening around mental health in sport but slowly we are getting some conversation happening in the public forums, which is extremely important.

AFL players will always make up a small portion of the community but we can advocate for social issues and can push positive messages into the public forums. We do have a responsibility, in part, to make sure that we are a positive influence on the community on things like this for sure.

The public in Australia clearly knows that athletes are people, but often their association with us is clearly the number running out on the weekend.

These types of pieces are incredibly important in telling people your own story and I suppose in a way, mine is quite unique – particularly in the AFL landscape that at the moment doesn’t have a huge amount of personalised conversation about mental health, at least from current players.

Like I said, I sort of feel some responsibility to provide answers to what was going on last year and to also provide a positive message around this topic because someone has to and we need to keep this conversation going.

Youth suicides and all the mental health issues we are dealing with are going to continue to happen and are going to have to continue to school ourselves so that we can better deal with them.

I haven’t set myself specific goals in regards to my mental health.

I think it’s a rolling narrative around making sure I make good decisions for my well-being and that I make sure that I can continue to deal with something that is probably going to be there for my entire life.

I have seen it happen to a number of people around me and I’ll continue to try and help those around me who are going through something similar or continue to educate those who aren’t about how to best deal with it and to try and make it better for everyone. 

If you or some one you know is struggling, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14) for assistance.