Before every game he plays, Travis Boak runs through his routine.
It’s a routine he’s practised for years. First, on the night before the game, he cooks a dinner of lasagne with rice – the same meal, without fail. Then he’ll jump in an ice bath for 10 minutes and hit the sauna for a further 45. On game day morning, he’ll have a bowl of Weetbix with banana and honey, and will eat only peanut butter sandwiches from then on. He’ll meditate for around five minutes before leaving the house, and then he’ll FaceTime his mum.
“She’ll give me her two cents for the game, which is always nice,” Travis tells RedBull.com over the phone from his home in Adelaide. “She’s great, mum. She loves her footy. Mum and dad were always massive footy fans, and she knows her stuff, so I definitely still take advice from her. ‘Quick hands and kick your goals’ – that’s basically the simplest advice she always gives to me.”
Travis will arrive at the game two and a half hours early – around an hour before anyone else gets there – to prepare his body and “dial in”, a process he says takes a bit longer now he’s “a little older”. Then, as he runs out for a game, he’ll look up to the sky. “Just looking up to dad,” he says. “It’s something I’ve done since my first AFL game.”
Travis’s father, Roger, passed away in 2005 when Travis was 16, having spent a couple of years battling cancer. Travis was drafted into the AFL the very next year (Port Adelaide’s first selection, fifth overall), and left his home in Torquay, Victoria, for Adelaide to begin his induction into the bright lights of AFL. Travis earned a nomination for the NAB Rising Star award in his debut season and captained Port from 2013-2018, and he’s played for the team for his entire AFL career so far.
Roger, who was only in his 40s when he died, was a 200-game legend at the local Torquay Football Club and played a huge role in developing and nurturing his son’s love of the game – even coaching Travis’ only premiership (to date) with his under-14s team. “I absolutely loved going to watch him play local footy at Torquay,” says Travis. “And having a kick on the oval with him after a game was something that was always really special. He was always there, right from the start. So I always look up to the sky…make sure he’s watching every game.”
I think as athletes we can get caught up in the result all the time. All those results, all those outcomes [...] that’s all out of my control. But what I can do is put a shit load of work and a lot of time in to just improving.
With Port taking on Collingwood this Friday in Adelaide, Travis will be celebrating his 300th game in the AFL, and he doesn’t take the milestone lightly. “I think what comes up most right now, as I think about 300 games, is gratitude,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here today without the support of my family, friends, coaches the footy club and fans support. It’s been an up and down journey but I have had so many people support me along the way, and help me through some tough times. Friday night is more about the people that have helped me get here than anything else. I’m just so thankful for that and being able to play one game, let alone 300, for this great club.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Travis’ milestone season isn’t that he’ll be playing his 300th game; rather that he came into it as a Brownlow Medal favourite, and that his team – who were minor premiers in the 2020 season before falling to Richmond in the prelim finals – is one of the top picks to go all the way this year. With Port sitting fourth in the standings at time of writing (thanks to a surprise win on the road vs St Kilda), Travis’ team is only six points behind the first-place Demons, who are having something of a renaissance year. The premiership race is wide open.
Last year, Travis had a career season. He was selected as vice-captain in the 2020 All-Australian Team, came second in votes for the Leigh Matthews Trophy, and was a runner-up for the 2020 Brownlow Medal (losing out by 10 points to Brisbane’s Lachie Neal). When asked how he deals with expectations, both of himself and his team, Travis refers to last season’s abrupt end at the hands of the Tigers, and the lessons he was able to glean from it.
“That hurt a lot,” he says. “But it wasn’t until I allowed that pain to go through me and experience it all that I realised this is the best group I have ever been involved in. Every single player, whether it’s a young kid or a senior player, just wants to get better, and wants to be part of something special. That reminded me of how lucky I am, that’s what makes me want to show up every day, and that’s what makes me want to give everything I can for this group.”
I’m not a footballer. I’m not an athlete. That’s just what I do. That separation gives me a lot of belief and confidence as a human being, without any attachment to me being a footballer.
He’s adopted a more philosophical approach to his life as a competitor, too, having shifted to more of a process-over-results mentality over the years. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t care about the results, because he does. It’s more a recognition that the results are so often out of his control. All he can control is his process, and his commitment to the craft. "I think as athletes we can get caught up in the result all the time,” he says. “All those results, all those outcomes, how I play, the awards you win, that’s all out of my control. But what I can do is put a shit load of work and a lot of time in to just improving. It can relieve so much pressure just to go back and focus on what it is that can help you get there. Just focusing on that is just...it's a lot of freedom. So that’s what I want to do, and hopefully I can inspire others in the same position.”
And Travis is nothing if not an inspiration to his fellow players and coaches. “Travis means so much to this footy club,” Port Adelaide’s assistant coach told The Australian earlier this week. “He has a dedication that separates him from nearly everyone else.” As far as his overall longevity and performance is concerned, motivation for Travis came in the form of his 30th birthday, when he refused to roll over and accept the dominant AFL narrative about older players. “In the AFL they say as soon as you hit 30, you start to go downhill,” he says. “Well… why? That inspired me to want to be better once I got to 30. Age doesn’t matter – what matters is what you want, and what you can do, and putting in the work.”
Ahead of the 2021 AFL season, Travis switched up his physical preparation and training routines, and worked with the Red Bull High Performance Lab in the US (over Zoom) on some more dynamic workouts. He also worked with Nam Baldwin, a performance coach who works with many Red Bull athletes, who helped him inject his training with more intention and purpose. “Anyone can train and achieve a certain outcome,” says Travis. “But where’s my intention? Where’s my focus when things get really, really tough? Those types of things helped me become better mentally, as an athlete.”
Mindfulness has played a huge role in Travis’ life over the past few years, too. Port Adelaide has an in-house mindfulness coach, and Travis has been writing in a journal regularly for the last three or four years. He now has two journals: one for footy, and one for life. He writes in his “footy book” every week, and uses it to set targets and prepare for what’s ahead. In his “life” book, he writes to help him develop as an emotionally aware human being. “And be my happiest self,” he adds. “What I’m grateful for, what I want to get out of the day – little targets about letting go of control and being vulnerable.”
I think a lot of our sadness and pain can come from achievement and thinking that we need to do certain things to be a good person, or a valuable person. But we don't have to do anything to be worthy.
Does he think that journaling, and taking time to tend to his mental health, pays dividends in other areas of his life too?
“One hundred percent,” he says. “I think certainly as men, we get so attached to achievement and thinking that’s who we are. But by separating the two [journals], I can really be myself, and be proud of who I am as a person, and then just be an athlete on the side. I’m not a footballer. I’m not an athlete. That’s just what I do. That separation gives me a lot of belief and confidence as a human being, without any attachment to me being a footballer. I can still have goals and dreams as a footballer and as an athlete, but whether I achieve them or not, I'm still worthy as a human being.”
He pauses. “I think a lot of our sadness and pain can come from achievement and thinking that we need to do certain things to be a good person, or a valuable person,” he adds. “But we don't have to do anything to be worthy. The more we can practice that, and the more we can let go of that, the happier we will be, and the freer we'll be to be the person that we actually are.”
For Travis, everything is connected. Call it Zen, or something like it, but his routines, process, philosophy and approach to his mental wellbeing are all factors that have contributed to his success – both in the sporting arena and beyond – and helped him walk into his 300th game in exceptional form, both mentally and physically. And though he lost his father at a young age, it’s clear that Roger Boak continues to play a huge role in his son’s life, with Travis having spent years as an ambassador for the Childhood Cancer Association, visiting kids in hospital and supporting families in whatever ways he can.
“Being in the hospital with dad was one of the worst experiences I’ll ever have,” he adds. “Seeing how crook dad was, and how much it was hurting mum and my sisters, it’s a horrible feeling. So if I can help for five minutes, 10 minutes, whatever it is, and take that pain away for a little period of time, then I’m giving something back. For me, that’s kind of what my purpose is, along with what I do in footy, to try and help people be the best they can be – whether that’s fighting an illness, whether that’s in sport, or anywhere else. It’s a massive part of my life.”
Travis Boak will play his 300th AFL game on Friday 23 July, when Port Adelaide face the Collingwood Magpies in Adelaide. You can support the Childhood Cancer Association by making a one-off or recurring donation.