The Grey Cup is a Canadian celebration that people from across the country embrace with a level of passion you can't help but appreciate when you get to be a part of it.
Consistently, Grey Cup week is an experience that Canadians have grown to love. Many will schedule their week of holidays around this event just so they can travel to the host city and reunite with established friends. Crazy CFL fans will stumble off flights starting Thursday, sporting painted faces and decked out in their team colours.
Grey Cup fever arrives as soon as the thousands of fans make their way through the Vancouver airport and into the downtown streets.
For those of you that have experienced the pageantry, you know that this is unlike any other CFL week. For those of you that have either participated or watched a Grey Cup game, you appreciate that it is unlike any other game.
Grey Cup distractions
I have found it interesting how the two head coaches have prepared their teams for the distractions they know they will face.
Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice has tried to communicate to his team that this week needs to be "like any other week." The Bombers players arrived Tuesday dressed in suites and relaying the message that they are on a business trip, with beating the B.C. Lions as the sole purpose.
LaPolice has decided to stay committed to the team's regular-season 11 p.m. (local) curfew rule through the week. His young players are doing their best to convince themselves they are focused, and will not allow anything to distract them from their objective.
This is a great mindset to have, but the question for me is will the players still be focused later in the week? In describing the kind of team the Bombers are, Winnipeg defensive back Jonathan Hefney said: "You gonna see a ton of swag goin' around. That's what we call ourselves, right? It's a bunch of young guys out here ready to have fun and ready to play football."
The Bombers are not a suit and tie club. There are young and crazy. This is what makes them so good. They need to go be crazy and have some fun early in the week because it's encouraged. LaPolice needs to embrace his team for what it is, rather than trying to force characteristics onto his players that don't exist.
Lions take business approach
Lions head coach Wally Buono has also had "the talk" with his players. Buono's directions to his players: be a man, be a professional and when it is time to work, focus on football for the 4 ½ hours a day that is expected of you.
"I think you have to be smart in the sense of allowing the players and anybody that is involved in the Grey Cup to be a part of it. But I think also there has to be a time and place where you put that aside and come to work. We have times when we want the players to enjoy themselves, but there are also hours when they have to come to work."
I believe the years of experience coupled with the fact that Buono's time as a head coach is coming to a close, has convinced him you need to embrace the experience and celebrate when you have the opportunity to do so, because you don't know when or if it will come around again.
There is no doubt that winning a Grey Cup is completely different than just being in the game. I have had an opportunity to experience both. Playing for the Calgary Stampeders, I was fortunate enough to play in four Grey Cups and won in 1998 and 2001. The heartache that you feel is challenging when you lose and the sense of accomplishment that you feel when you win lasts a lifetime.
With that said, the entire week is memorable and you really miss out if you don't embrace it. The challenge is to ride the fine line of enjoyment versus game preparation.
Advice for players
The message that I would be sending to players is more in line with how Buono is addressing his team. Don't bother trying to convince yourself that this week is like any other week of the year, because it isn't. The more you fight against this fact the less prepared you will be mentally to handle the reality of the distractions.
Those who say they will stay in their regular routine and deal with the week like they have always done have obviously never experienced a Grey Cup week.
Players and coaches will be pulled in all kinds of directions for various media appearances. CFL fans will be grabbing you on the street to offer their encouragement while also requesting pictures. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are no longer your own. You constantly feel the conversations begin and end with a microphone stuck in your face.
It is a week that completely pulls you out of your routine, to the point that you look forward to the 4 ½-hour practices - a time where the isolation helps you focus on football.
The really tough part about the preparation process is that the players' schedule is different than those celebrating. The party in the streets start to rev up on Friday. But by that day, the players need to have a great practice.
Friday night is a crucial, one where players need plenty of sleep in preparation for Sunday's game.
Saturday they need to rest their legs and watch some TV in their hotel room. Saturday night is a time for a great dinner with teammates while having sharing some laughs before shutting it down. Sunday is all about their regular game day routine.
However, players have plenty of time to grab hold of some fun early in the week - and they should. The more relaxed that you can be early goes a long way in how mentally fresh you'll feel later.
The team that does that will have a greater chance of playing their best on Sunday night.
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