The window into ‘the black dog of depression’ is thankfully starting to open in sport
NO one is to blame for Robert Enke’s death but everyone in sport can learn from it.
The 32-year-old Enke, tipped to be Germany’s first choice goalkeeper at next year’s World Cup, took his own life in front of a speeding train on Tuesday.
Officials at his club, Hannover 96, and his stunned national team-mates knew nothing of the clinical depression which led him into such desperation.
He had concealed his condition and his treatment because he feared it would cost him his career and could possibly cause welfare officers to take away his adopted child.
Like all cases of depression, Enke’s is particular to his own circumstances, chemistry and psychology and shouldn’t be used for glib analysis or sweeping conclusions, however it does carry a clear reminder about the traditional environment of sport.
As Ricky Williams, an American football star who suffered like Enke, says, “in sports when it’s a broken bone, teams will do everything in their power to make sure it’s okay but when it’s a broken soul, it’s like a weakness.”
He is echoed by Terry Bradshaw, a legendary four-time Super Bowl winner, who told Sports Illustrated; “We’re supposed to be big, tough guys. ‘You have depression? Shoot, that’s not depression. That’s weakness.’ That’s how the thinking goes.”
Mental health issues still carry a stigma in all work- places but a sweaty training ground or a jocular changing room are not exactly conducive to revealing such frailties.
Superficially we’re inclined to think that sports stars shouldn’t suffer from serious depression because they are living our dreams of fame, fortune, adulation and physical prowess, but there is little or no connection in any walk of life between material or physical success and the incidence of depression.
Sports stars have no magical escape route from the national average of mental health problems, which some put as high as one-in-four, and it’s suggested they might have an even higher propensity than normal because of the stress of public performance, inordinate amounts of time away from home and the fragility of a career which could end with a single injury.
Matthew Syed, writing in The Times, has also observed that “professional sport, in many ways, demands neurosis as it makes a virtue of the obses- sional pursuit of perfection”.
Ironically many sportsmen and women have spoken about the horrible sense of emptiness that arrives at their greatest moment of triumph.
Thankfully the window into “the black dog of depression”, as Winston Churchill called it, is opening gradually in the sports world.
English cricketer Marcus Trecothick’s admirable candour about his struggles represented a big step. Another one was taken by Andre Agassi.
Among all the hoopla about crystal meth and his wig, Agassi’s controversial autobiography gives insights into his deeply depressed state of mind which even led him to effectively throw a French Open semi-final.
As some rush to condemn him, three-time Wimbledon champion John Newcombe cautions that “anyone who’s been at the top that doesn’t understand that (sort of depression) is not telling the truth.”