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Pre-season spotlight: Michael Johnson

To kick off our three-part feature on pre-season, Mark Holmes reports on the training camp put on by legendary sprinter Michael Johnson.

Last Updated: 18/09/14 at 14:07

Michael Johnson: Has brought his expertise to the UK

Michael Johnson: Has brought his expertise to the UK

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With clubs now well into their pre-season campaign, we look into the methods, technologies and good old hard work being put in by players, managers and coaches before the big kick off next month.

Michael Johnson Performance

He may be 46, but Michael Johnston is still officially the world's fastest man over 400 metres with the record he set in 1999 still standing some 15 years on.

The 200 metres world record he held for over 12 years was finally broken by Usain Bolt in 2008 but, make no mistake about it, the four-time Olympic gold-medallist and eight-time World Championships gold medallist will forever be remembered as one of the greatest sprinters of all time.

Those days are behind the American now, of course, but he is still having an impact on sport at the very highest level, having set up Michael Johnson Performance in 2007.

MJP is widely known in the US as the destination for NFL athletes during the off-season and is the official training partner of the Dallas Cowboys (NFL) and Dallas Stars (NHL). The MJP Centre was also the base for the Ivory Coast team prior to this summer's World Cup in Brazil.

Having established a UK home at St George's Park earlier this year, in conjunction with Perform, MJP hosted a pre-season preparation camp for footballers last month, with a focus on speed, injury prevention, nutrition analysis and support, massage and physiotherapy, mental skills training and more.

Johnson told TEAMtalk: "The consistency and longevity that I had as an athlete was due to the fact that I had a great group of support staff. Not necessarily my track coach, who was phenomenal, but the support team that could make him a better coach and me a better athlete.

"So the idea of Michael Johnson Performance was to provide that same type of support for other athletes.

"The things that we're doing here (at St George's Park), it's skills for any sport. We're not in the skill training business for football, it's all about the athleticism.

"That is what we do. It's applicable to every sport so [a football coach] no longer needs to see what the rugby guys or the athletics guys are doing because that's the business we're in, amalgamating the information that we have from working with athletes in all different sports.

"We have human performance specialists on our staff; their very reason for being there is to study athletic movement and study athletic development and then apply that to the specific sports."

Teaching old dogs new tricks

West Ham striker Carlton Cole, Burnley new boy Marvin Sordell and Ipswich duo Frank Nouble and Tyrone Mings were among the players to attend the camp and, although much of the work MJP does is with young athletes, Johnson insists it is still possible to teach an old dog new tricks.

"Athletes, especially elite athletes, are looking for every little advantage they can get," he added.

"They already recognise some of their own tendencies that are not necessarily working for them. And so trusting that the knowledge that we have and the expertise that we have is going to help them to get past that and be able to reach their potential, they will do whatever it takes.

"But at the same time, our coaches have to be great teachers. And that's why you see a lot of blowing the whistle and demonstrating, it's making sure athletes understand why we're doing this.

"The better the athletes understand what the training is intended for, why we're doing this and how it's going to help them, the better they're able to execute it."

Learning from the best

There was not a football in sight on the day I was invited to watch the MJP coaches in action, with players instead taking part in a series of sprint and acceleration drills in the morning before a recovery session in the afternoon. 

However, Lance Walker, Director of Performance at MJP, insists every aspect of the training was designed with football in mind.

"The camp allows players to work on their athleticism for soccer," he said.

"So much of their time during the off season is spent on fitness, regeneration and recuperation. What these footballers have chosen to do is to leverage that small off-season they have, to add some elements of athleticism to their game or enhance elements of athleticism for the game of football.

"For example, every player understands the importance of acceleration. They see it on the pitch, they see the weaknesses exposed in those players that don't have acceleration.

"We've been working on acceleration for football. What tricks can we take from fast people like Michael himself and apply that on the football pitch?

"The players here are actually taking those titbits from Michael and applying it, integrating it into their game. That's truly what performance training is all about.

"Very seldom in a game of football are you going to get up to speed like Michael Johnson and run at top speed but if you watch the game closely and watch away from the ball you'll see hundreds of those accelerations that we worked on with these players today, those little three to six metre bursts.

"Some of them are linear, some of them are angular, some of them have a change in direction at the end, a tackle or a receiving or a passing of the ball, but at the end of the day you're going to see hundreds of those accelerations.

"If we can make a player 0.01 per cent better, more efficient, more effective at your acceleration, today, here, and they apply that 100 times during the match, what does that add up to? More efficiency, less injuries, less energy consumption.

"The elites work on those small things, that aggregation of marginal gains. They're looking for those little things to add. "You saw a really cool drill when they lined up on the line and I only gave them five yards to separate themselves from somebody else and in a lot of cases in football that's all they have.

"They've got to be more efficient, more effective. Even though they're not faster than the next guy - if we lined up and had 100 metre races he wouldn't necessarily beat him over 100 metres - he can beat him over five metres.

"He's more effective, he's more efficient, he's more explosive, and he's using these tricks and techniques we're teaching him to win more balls."

New mindsets

Walker insists he had no idea of the ability of any of the players to attend the MJP camp - "I don't coach soccer, I don't even coach soccer for fitness" - yet the former strength and conditioning coach at Dallas Cowboys says that lack of experience in football is actually hugely beneficial.

"The football clubs do a great job," he said. "The fitness coaches, sports scientists and physios are very smart, very competent folks, and they do a tremendous job.

"The challenge they have is that they're in the soccer environment so it's always about soccer. What we do is take the ball away from the players, take them out of their element, so we're not focused necessarily on soccer, we're focused on the athleticism for soccer.

"Just the mindset of getting away from their clubs, getting the balls away from them and keeping the managers away allows them to experiment.

"They can almost be a bit more kid-like, to learn some new things, because the minute you introduce the ball they fall right into those automated patterns that they already showed up with. So what I want to do is take that away, disconnect that part of it.

"The critical factor with all of these players is to really disconnect from the technical and tactical work with the ball and see the game of soccer for what I see it as, which is a lot of athleticism with all this movement away from the ball.

"Hopefully we will make these players faster but I know this is going to take three weeks of them applying this to their sport when they are back with their clubs to really let it stick and be reflected subconsciously to them in pitch situations."

Sordell looking for advantage

For Sordell, who was in talks over a move from Bolton to Burnley when he attended the camp, the chance to get a head start ahead of pre-season training was one he grabbed with both hands.

"Every little thing that you can do to improve yourself, you will do," he said.

"Pre-season is coming up and I want to hit the ground running.

"Anything I can do to add a little bit to my game or add a small percentage that can take me up to the next level...hopefully I can take it into pre-season so I can hit the ground running and be ready.

"We've been working on acceleration and putting in as much power as possible into what you're doing.

"They (MJP) have top coaches and the techniques they teach you are so detailed that you think you are doing things right but a little thing can make a huge difference.

"When you add three, four, five of those little things all of a sudden you see yourself getting an extra yard or two and it can make a massive difference in your game."

Check back on Tuesday and Wednesday for interviews with Stoke's head of sports science, Damian Roden, MK Dons manager Karl Robinson, Brighton midfielder Rohan Ince, and new Leicester coach Kevin Phillips.

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