Sometimes (although, in truth, it happens more often than I would like to admit) I come across a book that I feel I must buy only to then leave it unread on my bookshelf. Not because I don’t like the book but because I simply have too much to read and not enough time to do so. That was the case with Ronald Reng’s ‘A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke’ which I got whilst on holiday only to barely touch it in the following months.
Over Christmas, however, I decided that I had to power through it and I did. Yet doing that proved to be much more difficult than I imagined because, whilst the book is beautiful and wonderfully written, the subject makes it very hard to read.
For those who have never heard of this book, ‘A Life Too Short’ is the biography of Robert Enke, the goalkeeper who was due to be Germany’s Number 1 at the 2008 World Cup but who committed suicide a few months before that competition was due to start. It is the kind of story that fills you with dread the more you read because Enke was a really likeable person for whom you want a happy ending but you know that it won’t be the case. The final couple of chapters are simply heart-breaking.
Away from the specifics of the story itself, this is a very powerful book. To practically anyone bar a few people who were very close to him, Enke was a very confident man who had managed to rebuild his career after a move to Barcelona had turned sour. Yet it wasn’t the case. Every mistake – perceived or actual - or criticism was replayed in his head countless times, preventing him from leading a normal life.
It is a brutal examination of the world of football, of how little the people who are involved in the game think about the human aspect. Many are too self-absorbed to worry about the impact to those around them whilst others think that they know everything about the game and want to impose their beliefs on everyone else.
It is also a book that should shame any fan (or writer) who has excessively criticised a player after a few negative performances; or those who turn on players for perceived slights on their club.
Of course, football at the highest level is a highly competitive sport where a certain degree of mental strength is required in order to succeed. This, however, does not mean that it makes sense for coaches to be blind to the emotional needs of their players. And, certainly more should be done to break down the corrosive belief that a player who talks about depression is one who will never be able to play at the highest level; a fear that kept Enke from going public with his illness and, to an extent, stopped him from seeking the help he needed.
For any other level of football – particularly youth football - there is simply no excuse. Coaches have to be aware of the mental state of their players, they have to be able to gauge how much pressure they can handle and be aware of the damage that they might be doing by exposing them to too much pressure without giving them the tools to handle it. Above all, there has to be an environment which provides players with an outlet to talk if there is something that doesn’t feel right for them.
That also applies to parents. It is easy for a child to start believing that they are only worth something in the eyes of their parents if they are doing well in a sport, especially if that parent happens to be football mad. If the only praise that they get comes when they do well it is unlikely that they will have any other belief. Such situations trap them into staying in a sport even if something is wrong, or to do things that they wouldn’t normally do in order to keep the illusion that they are doing well.
All of this does not mean that it is possible to get to a situation where illnesses like depression can be eliminated Nor does it mean that there must be some individual to blame when someone falls victim to it.
What it means, and what anyone involved in football should be working for, is that there should be awareness of what can heighten the illness and that people who are depressed should be able to get the help that is needed without being ostracised.
This article formed part of the Blueprint for Football Extra series.