The Indianapolis Colts have a losing season on their hands, but that's not all that could be on their minds. The team's players have suffered multiple injuries in the season so far, including defensive tackle Eric Foster's gruesome ankle injury in Monday night's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sports psychologists say those injuries could take a toll on players' psyches, even on the ones who weren't injured.
Foster dislocated his ankle in the second quarter of the game when his leg got pinned and tangled under defensive end Tyler Brayton. He was taken out of the game.
Foster became emotional as doctors immobilized his leg on the field and loaded him onto a stretcher, and as he rode off the field, he pumped his fist in the air, rallying players from both teams and a stadium full of fans.
The severity of Foster's injury was obvious, both in video replays and based on the emotional reactions of his teammates. But sports psychologists say the mental challenges Foster may face because of his injury could make his road to recovery even rockier.
Dr. William Parham, a sports psychologist in Irvine, Calif., said a player's identity as an athlete makes injury hard to handle emotionally.
"Participation in athletics, especially at the professional level, is not just participation in a game. It's a part of who that player is. It becomes who they are and how they identify themselves," Parham said. "When somebody snatches from them the opportunity for them to express themselves through athletics, that can be devastating."
Psychologists say major injuries can bring up lots of questions for players about when and if they will recover and get back to playing. Those questions can lead to anxiety, depression, anger, fear and even guilt about letting down teammates and fans. And Parham said injured professional athletes such as Foster have an added burden – worrying about how an injury will affect their job security.
Even after an athletes recover physically, they can still face lingering fears about their ability to perform. Daniel Gould, a professor of sports psychology at Michigan State University, said a full physical recovery may not be enough to prevent a crisis of confidence for some players.
"You've done all you could to recover, but until somebody takes a really hard shot at your knee or your ankle, and you can get up, you're not confident," he said.
Gould said athletic trainers treating Foster would probably watch for signs that he is becoming increasingly anxious or obsessed with his injury throughout his recovery.
Foster may not be the only Colt struggling with thoughts about his devastating injury. Offensive linemen Anthony Castonzo and Ben Iljanana both left the game with knee injuries in Monday's game, adding to a long list of Colts who are disabled, including quarterback Peyton Manning, who is out after having surgery on his neck. Parham said the team's healthy players undoubtedly feel the effects of their teammates' absences.
"When you're a band of brothers on a team, when one hurts, they all hurt," Parham said. "They'll definitely feel that missing link."
The impact of Foster's injury was apparent in his teammates' reactions Monday night. Several Colts players appeared to be fighting back tears, and a few circled around the doctors who were tending to Foster, offering him some encouragement.
Shilagh Mirgain, a sports psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said players who see a gruesome injury like Foster's may worry about their own vulnerabilities, even though they were not the ones suffering injury. But she said that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
"If the team has an opportunity to talk about and process what happened during that game, their reactions, and some of their own fears and concerns about injury, that can also allow the team to unify," Mirgain said.
In the season ahead, Mirgain said the Colts could even turn their negative fears into a positive performance.
"It's an opportunity for the Colts to commit to taking care of themselves, physically and mentally," she said. "They can still have a very successful season going forward."
Foster underwent surgery on his ankle Monday night in a Tampa hospital, and speculations are flying that the injury will end his season. But sports psychologists say a few things could make his recovery easier. Setting small, daily goals for recovery might help him feel accomplished, and leaning on friends, family and teammates for support can be essential.
The Colts' support for Foster was evident Monday night, as his teammates rallied at his side and fans roared when he was carried off the field. Mirgain said Foster's fist-pumping acknowledgement of this support is a good sign for his recovery.
"Instead of him shutting down and withdrawing, he communicated that he was OK and would allow his teammates to refocus back on their original goals," she said. "It allowed him to stay connected to his teammates."
On Tuesday, Foster sent a grateful tweet to his fans.
"Thank u all 4 such kind words. I thank u Lord in Advance. Women around the world gettn treated 4 cancer. May God have mercy on all o us."