Robert Enke & The Importance Of Mental Health For Goalkeepers

Robert Enke & The Importance Of Mental Health For Goalkeepers

A couple of days ago I came across the story of Robert Enke. It wasn’t my first time coming across the story, in fact, I remember perfectly when it happened. However, due to the tragic nature of the story it wasn’t one that I liked to look back on. Recently though when I heard that it was the anniversary of the tragedy I felt compelled to write an article commemorating the story, and giving it its rightful importance for goalkeeper mental health.

For those people who don’t know the story, Robert Enke was a standout German goalkeeper. In the early stages of his career he had decent seasons at Borussia Mönchengladbach, and that got him signed to play for Benfica in the Portuguese. You have to realize that at that point in the late 90s the Bundesliga was not the financial success that it is today. A move from Germany to Portugal was not necessarily a step in the wrong direction in a player’s career. From Benfica he made the move to FC Barcelona, and that’s really when he had a tough time. He was only able to play between the sticks once for Barcelona, he went on loans to Turkey, and Tenerife in the Spanish second division, but he didn’t play well in these stints either. 

As the story goes it was in those Barcelona days that Enke started having mental health issues. The fact that he wasn’t finding the success on the field that he was looking for really weighed down on him. Despite the fact that he was a talented goalkeeper he found it hard to see the field in those years. 

Robert Enke playing between the sticks

The Move Back To Germany 

In 2004 Enke was able to free himself from his Barcelona contract to make a move back home to Germany with Hannover 96. He enjoyed some consistency in his final days at Tenerife, and he was able to ride that wave into a starting role at Hannover 96. Again a telling point that the Bundesliga was not as competitive as it is today. In any case, back in Germany he was able to find consistency and success. After the 2006 World Cup that saw Oliver Kahn, and Jens Lehman fight for the starting role with the German national team he started to get more minutes with the national team. To the point where he was slated to be the starting goalkeeper for Germany in the 2010 World Cup. 

That all changed on the 10th of November 2009 when Enke decided to put an end to his own life…

Robert Enke funeral

Obviously Enke’s Decision Wasn’t Solely Football Based    

While Enke went through tough moments on the field it was ultimately situations that happened off the field that led him to make the only decision that there’s no turning back from. After the incident reports came out which indicated that Enke had lost an infant daughter and that he was never able to overcome the depression that ensued such a tragedy. Why is it important to talk about this tragedy? 

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Why Robert Enke’s Story Gets Forgotten 

There are a couple of reasons why the Robert Enke story is a lot of times lost in the ether, and not brought up as much as it potentially should be. Number one is the way that Robert decided to end his life. Back in those days suicide stories got very limited coverage because of the not safe for work nature of the details. Sadly, this meant that the teaching from the story which is what’s really important was also sometimes lost in an effort to really not parade such a story too long on the headlines.          

The second reason why we could make the argument that the story gets forgotten is Manuel Neuer. Of course, it’s not Neuer’s fault that this is the case, but the fact remains that Neuer was able to start for Germany in that 2010 World Cup in large part due to Enke’s absence. If Enke had been there it’s highly likely that Joachim Löw would’ve chosen his experience over Neuer’s youth. Neuer took the opportunity though and never looked back. Turning himself into one of the best goalkeepers to ever walk the planet. 

Why Goalkeepers Tend To Have Unique Battles With Mental Health  

These are certainly ideas that are not necessarily co-signed by a professional, but having played in goal for a long time I would like to throw them out here. Number one is that seeking help when you’re dealing with mental health issues should be a must. Don’t be ashamed about talking to people about your struggles. Obviously the Enke situation may seem like an extreme incident that won’t apply to other players at the position. In fact, some people would argue that his position had nothing to do with his ultimate decision, and that may be true, but it’s also true that goalkeeping is a lonely art. Yes, you get the chance to train with fellow goalkeepers all of the time, but you spend a lot of time within your own head whether you like it or not. 

I would argue that this battle that we have as goalkeeper between the ears is one that field players don’t have. At least not during training, and especially not during games. Even if you make a mistake out on the field the dynamic nature of the game itself forces you to think about what’s next whether you want to or not. In goal that’s not necessarily the case. You make a mistake, and you have the opportunity and sometimes the curse of being able to linger on it for a long time. That way of thinking and of life can permeate beyond the game. Some of us that are lifelong goalkeepers have the position embedded in our personalities whether you want to or not. As a goalkeeper failure is a lot of times a feeling and a situation that you deal with entirely on your own. 

Manuel Neuer for the German national team

The Cruel Reminder of Neuer’s Role In The Story  

Enke’s ultimate decision and Neuer’s rise in the World Cup is a cruel reminder that life within the world of football is going to go on without us. However, the decision ultimately devastated his family and his loved ones. That’s not something that I want to say to dump on his decision; he seemed to have more than valid reasons. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be in Neuer’s shoes either. At least not in the 2010 tournament. The fact that he was able to perform as well as he did with the Enke tragedy probably weighing down on him is a testament to his character.    

Recommendations For Goalkeeper Coaches Regarding Mental Health 

Most of us that came up in goalkeeping through the 2000s probably got a tougher coaching style than some of the current guys. It is hard to develop your game I feel with a coach that really doesn’t communicate with you well, and that you don’t connect with. That’s why I recommend that coaches really do take the time to talk to some of their younger players. Particularly starting at maybe 14 onward. To really get them involved in their own development process. Talking about the game I feel is something that can help with on field development. At the same time it can help build a link between a player and a goalkeeper coach. That’s what’s ultimately important for mental health. 

As coaches, you may be one of the first people to notice that something is wrong with a player from a mental health standpoint. Since you can certainly tell when someone is just going through the motions. At the same time, it usually does affect performance on the field. It’s certainly a hard tight rope to walk with players in the sense of getting too personal or knowing when you’re forcing the issue. Obviously the way that you correct and point out mistakes is also going to be key toward proper development on the field while also making sure that you don’t kill any confidence that the player has already built. As a coach you want to make sure that you’re not just going through the motions, but instead you’re truly invested in the development of not only the player, but the person.    

Tim Howard With USMNT

Goalkeepers & Mental Health  

Going back to Enke I do feel that there’s a sense of cruel irony in his story. In the sense that when he was finally able to turn his career around he got knocked down by a blow to his personal life. A lot of times goalkeepers we do have those two fronts with mental health that we deal with. Obviously other folks can have a professional life, and a personal life, but if you’re serious about goalkeeping it’s a second or third facet in your life that can bring mental struggles. Sometimes you have to realize that there’s no shame in sitting out when you feel like you can’t cope with the stress of competition, and what’s going on in your personal life.

As I mentioned, even if you’re not a professional, but you take the game seriously, a bad day at the office plus a bad day on the pitch can lead you to a very dark place. I’m not necessarily saying that this situation led Enke to anything, but it is a fact that goalkeeping can make gloomy days even worse. It’s super cliché to come out and tell people to seek help if they think that they need it. I really think it’s the other way around, as I said coaches can be more proactive when it comes to mental health issues. 

Particularly when you’re seeing something off on the field. I realize that my rambling isn’t necessarily going anywhere. If there’s one thing that I want to throw out there is that we owe to Enke’s memory and to some of the others that we may have lost along the way to bring mental health to the forefront of goalkeeper training. Everyone loves talking about how 80% of the game is played between the ears, and yet we don’t train for that part of the game. It makes no sense.