An exclusive interview with Michael Johnson

By Paul Dargan. We’re at St George’s Park in Burton-upon-Trent – a truly world-class facility in sports science, sports development and rehabilitation. The staff are wonderful, knowledgeable and thorough. They offer the expertise and assistance crucial to any athlete making it to elite level and staying there. But after another disappointing England exit, are we confident that everything is in place for these players – and their successors in the future – to finally lay down a valid claim to be the best in the world?

First of all, let’s leave the blame game to someone else and celebrate what we possess and potentially what we can achieve. However, is that the problem right there? Do we take one of the foremost centres of sports excellence on the planet and then lay the blame – quite literally – at the feet of the players and athletes who don’t put that practice into their competitive performances?

No blame can be laid at the staff or facilities of England HQ. They are of elite standard and the planning that goes into the fitness, conditioning and recovery side of an elite athlete’s career is well in place.

Chicago 2016 Delegation

But during the last twelve months, there has been an addition to the setup at St George’s. MJP (Michael Johnson Performance) has chosen the Staffordshire site as its UK base to attract customers, primarily from all over the British Isles. Having taken part in one of the sessions offered to elite athletes desperate to unlock their potential, I can say that this is very welcome indeed. If someone of my average ability and knowledge can gain from just a two-hour group warm-up and practise, then what can the best this country has to offer learn?

At his best (as invariably was) Michael Johnson was a machine. He still holds the world record for the Men’s 400m, set in August 1999, and his list of accolades and achievements is breath-taking. He has now offered up his experience, as well as the team which helped him conquer the world, and is passing it on to the stars and starlets of today – in all sports.

Eight years ago, the Texan saw a gap in the market and established the company MJP, beginning to assist professionals and youth athletes aged 10-18 in McKinney, Texas. It flourished and then became an official partner to the Dallas Cowboys NFL, as well as the training centre for the Dallas Stars ice hockey team and Major League Soccer club, FC Dallas.

MJ2

The Offside Rule caught up with the man nicknamed ‘Superman’ in his track career, to get the lowdown on why MJP is attracting all sorts of famous names to St George’s Park.

Now, athletes from all over the UK can benefit from the programmes and, as Johnson says, it’s more than just physical training.

“In the US, we ran a training programme for youth athletes and big portion of our customer base is soccer players, starting at the age of nine. We also work with some of the Premier League Academies and those athletes are from 12-15 years old, so there’s even more room for improvement for those athletes.

“Obviously, those athletes are at the very elite level and they’re looking for the very small and minute levels of enhancements and most of these guys – the athletes who were out here today – they’re all professional footballers. They have an idea that they’re not optimising their speed and the natural athletic ability they have and that’s where we come in; to optimise those and make them faster and as strong and as powerful as they can be. Specifically for their sport.

“But as you would imagine at the youth level, those athletes are just now starting to learn and understand their athleticism. So there is a developmental stage there and we are trying to develop that athleticism in the most efficient and most effective way.”

Before myself and 20 other journalists of both sexes and various ages were put through our paces, we were treated to a session with players from all three tiers of the Football League. The energy, fun and intensity all increased as the session wore on and it was interesting to see the absence of a ball.

That is entirely what the deal is here: “MJP are not coming over here to teach footballers how to play football,” MJP Global Performance Director Lance Walker tells us. His determination to succeed, dedication and knowledge of what it takes to do so is both highly infectious and impressive.

“98 per cent of what happens on a football pitch is without the ball. The ball is not involved. We know from statistics that it is very uncommon for any player to have the ball at their feet for more than two minutes in total during a 90-minute match.

“Maybe when you’re watching a game, you’re constantly concentrating and focussing on who has the ball and what they are doing with it. You take your eye off what everyone else is doing in relation to the ball.

“If you get the chance to go back and watch a re-run of the same game and watch it differently, not looking at the ball and certainly looking away from it, you’ll see what goes on for 98 per cent of the game.”

Walker’s passion for achieving and attaining goals and ambitions with his students and customers is clear to see, as well as the people around him. But what is also very evident is MJP’s role in things.

They don’t see themselves as the vital piece in the tricky and complex jigsaw puzzle of an elite athlete, more as an integral part of shaping that athlete’s development and assisting them on their path to glory.

“What we do is not the most important thing,” he tells us. “What is important is what happens in soccer practice. What we aim to improve is what happens off the ball. We also need to learn from you and this game and make sure we know when and where to concentrate on improving acceleration.

“Anyone can improve, no matter what level you’re at – even if you’re already the best in the world.”

So, it doesn’t matter how much money you are earning a week at your club, or whether you want to strike and delay a plane destined for the World Cup due to an argument over bonus payments, there is no excuse in taking for granted that your current ability will assure you success.

Because winners don’t settle for what they have.

Winners go the extra mile. And then some.

Read more from Paul Dargan here!

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