Johnson shifts to training others

The gold medalist has opened a performance center for elite hopefuls.

McKINNEY, Texas (AP) — Before the Olympics, the five gold medals and the world records, Michael Johnson was a skinny kid who almost quit his high school track team because he didn’t think he was good enough.

Now he wants to turn youngsters into better athletes with equipment and coaching that wasn’t around when he went to Dallas’ Skyline High.

Last month, he opened the Michael Johnson Performance Center, the latest in a growing number of facilities around the country that tap into athletic dreams of young athletes. He also will train college football players for the NFL draft.

Johnson’s center in this affluent Dallas suburb features a 60-yard indoor sprint track, a synthetic turf field, a basketball court and weight room. Johnson plans a 4,000-seat outdoor stadium that could hold elite track events, even Olympic trials.

18 sessions

Johnson charges $979 for 18 sessions, which last 90 minutes each. Participants get a physical assessment, a vision and coordination test and a pair of running shoes.

One of Johnson’s first customers was Haley Pruitt, who made the all-district softball team this spring as a freshman at McKinney High School but worries about being too slow. Pruitt credits a few weeks of workouts with increasing her strength and improving her running technique.

“This will help running the bases, and I’ll be able to move quicker in center field,” Pruitt said.

American families spent an estimated $4.1 billion last year on sports instruction and private coaching, according to a sporting goods trade group. The number is expected to rise as kids and their parents compete harder for college scholarships and chase pro dreams.

Plenty of business

“Somebody with the stature of Michael Johnson helps build the category,” said Mark deGorter, chief operating officer for Velocity Sports Performance, a Georgia company with 73 locations. “There is plenty of business in Dallas and everywhere else for all of us.”

That’s not necessarily a good thing, according to some experts who have studied the boom — and increasing competitiveness — in youth sports.

Dr. Ronald Kamm, director of Sport Psychiatry Associates in Oakhurst, N.J., said high-level sports programs are good for many kids by fostering enjoyment of sports, improving skills and building confidence. But things can go wrong, he said, if parents push kids to attend in the unrealistic belief their child can earn a college scholarship.

“Some kids don’t win scholarships,” Kamm said. “Are the parents going to think it was a waste of money and communicate to the kid that he’s a failure?”

Whose game?

Dr. Richard Ginsburg, co-author of a book about youth sports, “Whose Game Is It, Anyway?” said the proliferation of pricey workout programs and select teams is unhealthy. He said the trend pushes kids to train harder at ever-younger ages, which he said can lead to injuries and burnout.

Ginsburg said the programs can be good if it’s the kid who wants to play, but often the sign-up decision is made by parents eager to give their child every advantage.

Johnson’s parents didn’t push him into track — he tried out for the high school team only at a friend’s insistence.

Johnson blossomed at Baylor, then won gold medals in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics. He still holds world records at 200 and 400 meters. Since retiring, Johnson has done television commentary and trained college players for the NFL draft — his star pupil was LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001.

Johnson has also trained Chinese runners and expects other top athletes such as Olympic 400-meter champion Jeremy Wariner, who trains in nearby Waco, to drop by his new center. But mostly, he said, he’ll work with youngsters 12 to 18, and many of them have no chance to become stars.

“We’re not necessarily looking for the next great athlete. We’re helping them to be better at whatever level they are,” Johnson said. “How fast can you make him? Well, it depends on how bad he is when you get him. I can’t promise anyone we can make them great, but we can make them greater.”

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