October 16, 2017

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Blue remain true to game-ahead script

THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Chris Young</p><p>Over the last three seasons, Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea has built a team culture that's dedicated to a strict one-game-at-a-time approach.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Chris Young

Over the last three seasons, Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea has built a team culture that's dedicated to a strict one-game-at-a-time approach.

For many, the ability to overcome the physical toll of professional football is most important to a team’s success. After all, players put their bodies on the line for the common goal of winning.

But there is an argument to be made that mental toughness is just as important. For some, managing how a team thinks can play an even greater role in preserving its long-term success.

Perhaps no other team exemplifies this more than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and their stubborn dedication to a strict one-week-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time approach to business.

It’s a theory that has come to define the Bombers in recent years. Wherever they find themselves on the emotional roller coaster that comes with every Canadian Football League season matters little. What happened in the past, or what might arrive in the future, isn’t as important — or as controllable — as what occurs in the present.

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For many, the ability to overcome the physical toll of professional football is most important to a team’s success. After all, players put their bodies on the line for the common goal of winning.

But there is an argument to be made that mental toughness is just as important. For some, managing how a team thinks can play an even greater role in preserving its long-term success.

Perhaps no other team exemplifies this more than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and their stubborn dedication to a strict one-week-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time approach to business.

It’s a theory that has come to define the Bombers in recent years. Wherever they find themselves on the emotional roller coaster that comes with every Canadian Football League season matters little. What happened in the past, or what might arrive in the future, isn’t as important — or as controllable — as what occurs in the present.

"That comes from the culture we want to build around here," said Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols. "When you have a lot of like-minded guys around, when new guys come in they kind of see real quick how it is here. You either fit in or you don’t."

It’s a culture Mike O’Shea began to form when he was hired as head coach prior to the 2014 season. The philosophy is one that O’Shea, who played 16 seasons in the CFL, winning three Grey Cups, has stayed true to. With it, the goal is simple: build a winning culture in the locker room and the results on the field will follow.

In nearly four seasons, the lineup has changed dramatically, with just nine players remaining from the 2014 roster. Though it’s impossible to suggest just how many of those personnel decisions were directly related to achieving the right fit, each player’s character is considered when deciding if someone should stay or go.

"We like our group for what they bring athletically, their football IQ and especially their character," O’Shea said. "These guys are smart guys that know how to be good teammates, know how to conduct themselves professionally."

This means sticking to the one-game-at-a-time philosophy in how the players conduct themselves with the media. It can be comical at times just how rare it is for any of the 60 or so players to waver from the script. While questions often range in topic, the response is often the same, clichéd answer.

"These clichés or whatever you want to call them — one game at a time — they’re popular sayings because they’re true," said O’Shea.

By staying consistent with what they’re saying individually, defensive tackle Jake Thomas said it makes it easier to remain unified as a team. It’s not that players don’t dwell on a loss, it’s just that the grieving process doesn’t seep outside the locker room.

"We have a rule of 24 hours and then we flush the last game. It’s good for preparation, so when you do have a bad week you’re not kicking a dead horse the whole time," said Thomas. "The media may not like the mantra of every week’s a new week but, really, that’s how we take it and how we approach our business."

Thomas credited a strong leadership group for the repetitive dialogue, with players such as cornerback Chris Randle leading the charge. By watching Randle, among others, stay committed to this belief system, its only helped strengthen the team’s resolve.

Randle called it as much a mindset as a process, one that has been tested over his time in Winnipeg. Having joined the team the same year as O’Shea, Winnipeg combined for just 12 wins in 36 games over the first two seasons.

"It’s been a long journey and you take your bumps and bruises with it but you continue to improve and that allows for everyone to hop on board," said Randle. "We’re not done with the process yet."

Randle said although the Bombers weren’t winning often, it was easy to see improvements. By dissecting game film and identifying their weaknesses, they believed it was only a matter of time before things turned around. The last thing they needed was to appear divided. If someone had something to say, it was done in the meeting room.

"We all understand our situation, we all understand what we’ve got ourselves into and what we’re trying to get to," said Randle. "That’s how we roll and it’s going to be a major key in us being successful."

The tide eventually turned last year, with the Bombers finishing the 2016 season 11-7 before losing to the B.C Lions in the West semifinal. Heading into Saturday’s home game against B.C., Winnipeg is 10-4, second in the West and primed to earn a home playoff game for the first time since 2011. A victory would clinch a playoff berth for the Bombers and snap the Lions’ 21-year run of post-season appearances.

T.J. Heath, who is among the Bombers’ most vocal players, might be tempted to veer from the usual chatter given just what is at stake Saturday. But the defensive back wouldn’t bite. In his mind, the playoffs are too far ahead to worry about and what happened with the Lions at the end of last season is long forgotten.

"How we talk about it is we want to win one game at a time," he said. "That’s the ultimate goal and as long as we do that we’ll be OK for the playoffs."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @jeffkhamilton

Read more by Jeff Hamilton .

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