Muskegon’s Yosef Johnson uses a different approach to help young athletes reach their full potential

By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – Galen Duff grew up in Spokane, Washington.

For most of his 23 years, he had never heard of Yosef Johnson, let alone Muskegon, Michigan.

Yoseph Johnson stands with Galen Duff.

Yoseph Johnson stands with Galen Duff.

But Duff is a young athlete with an enduring dream to play Major League Baseball.

That dream led him on a quest that connected him with Johnson, a Muskegon-based athletic  trainer/consultant and owner of Ultimate Athlete Concepts.

About 11 months ago Duff found himself packing and moving to Muskegon, where he found  a part-time job to keep a roof over his head while working out with Johnson several times per week.

When does he plan on leaving town? When he’s gained the necessary skills, with Johnson’s assistance, to break into the professional ranks.

Nothing else has worked to this point. He was a baseball standout in high school and went on to play Division 3 college baseball for several years at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

But he said injuries, and the lack of innovative coaching and training, kept him from improving at the rate he requires.

“In high school I was good enough to play Division 1, but there was a culture of not knowing how to get people to be better at the sport,” Duff said. “Overall I think I got worse the harder I worked.”

Working with Johnson, Duff said he’s closing in on his physical goals and preparing to try out for independent league professional baseball teams. To this point, he has added more than 13 mph to his throwing velocity, a feat that is unheard of in the baseball world.

“What we’re shooting for is getting four inches more on the vertical leap, four or five tenths of a second off the 60 yard dash, and add to my throwing speed,”  Duff said. “Hitting remains to be seen”.

“There’s an art to it that Yosef brings to the table that I didn’t know about. I’m just going to keep doing what he feels I need to do.”

Duff is just one of dozens of young athletes who have worked directly with Johnson, or at least benefitted indirectly from his advice.

Many swear he’s done wonders for their performance in a very short time.

That’s probably because Johnson brought something new to the table – athletic conditioning and training techniques that were developed in the former Soviet Union, which helped that nation dominate international competition in many sports for decades.

“Nobody in the country is doing what we do,” said Johnson, who also manages Racquets Downtown Grill in Muskegon. “It sounds crazy, but it’s true.”

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

Back in 1994, Johnson had a lot in common with Duff.

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He played a season of varsity basketball at Muskegon High School, then attended Muskegon Community College and Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana.

He was not a college athlete, but wanted to be in the worst way. He left IUS for a year, determined to return as quickly as possible with the skills to make the university basketball team.

“The main thing was, my athletic ability was not there,” Johnson said. “I went looking for anything or anybody out there who could help me.”

Johnson ended up reading a book, “Secrets of Soviet Sports Fitness and Training,” by Dr. Michael Yessis. He is now the publisher of the most current version of that book, “Secrets of Russian Sports Fitness and Training”.

His fascination with the book led him to contact Yessis, a California resident of Russian descent who translated Soviet training manuals and worked with young athletes.

His most famous student was former University of Southern California and Oakland Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich, who set prep and college passing records after working with Yessis.

Before long Johnson was visiting Yessis in California and trying to improve his basketball skills.

He never returned to college or played competitive basketball. Physical problems from his youth – including a herniated disk and chronic fatigue syndrome brought on by a teenage bout with pneumonia – prevented Johnson from completing his dream.

But Johnson maintained close contact with Yessis, and eventually became an expert in the Soviet performance training system.

“It’s all about jumping higher, making quicker moves, runner faster – being overall better athletes, as well as being to execute specific skills at a higher level” Johnson said.

Johnson says the fundamental concept of the Soviet system is quite simple. It focuses on specificity in exercise and individual characteristics designed to help athletes improve specific skills.

For example, if a baseball player wants to be a more powerful hitter, you develop an exercise program that focuses on the specific movements involved with hitting. There are few unnecessary movements, with little wasted energy.

“You look at what’s involved with hitting and what concepts are involved,” Johnson said. “The question is, how do we improve this specific skill? Just being a big bench presser doesn’t mean you will hit the ball harder.”

Johnson says many traditional American training techniques are too intense for younger athletes, and lack focus.

“What I have observed in many interactions with coaches is that harder work is equated as better work,” Johnson said. “We sorely lack precision in our training. Everything is thrown against the wall to see what sticks. In the end, we see very little improvement from freshman year to graduation.”

THE KIDS WON’T TAKE ‘NO’ FOR ANSWER

Back in Muskegon after his basketball dream faded, Johnson spent a short time as an assistant freshman basketball coach at Muskegon Heights High School. His friend Robert Dye was the head coach of the team.

Duff works on Johnson's exercise program.

Duff works on Johnson’s exercise program.

In 1998 he started helping Dye’s son, Robert Jr., work on conditioning. At the time Dye was a standout Division I basketball player at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.

“He came home for the summer and I introduced him to what I was doing,” Johnson said. I

Dye graduated from college and tried out for the Grand Rapids Hoops, a professional team in the old Continental Basketball Association. But his college success did not immediately equate to the pros.

He was cut because he was too slow, but Dye refused to give up.

He started working out with Johnson in a more intensive program, then returned the next fall to the Hoops training camp.

“We trained with him for about six months,” Johnson said of Dye. “He ended up making the Hoops one year later. He not only made the team, but suddenly he was faster than anybody on the team.”

Dye said the results amazed everyone around him.

“I went back to Grand Rapids the next year – it was basically the same team with a lot of the same players and same coaches, and I made the roster easily,” Dye said. “I was greeted with a lot of questions and compliments. They were saying they never saw anyone get that much faster in that amount of time.”

Gary Bond, the Hoops beat writer for the Grand Rapids Press at the time, even wrote a story about Dye’s offseason improvement, claiming he had never seen anything like it.

That’s when word started to spread about Johnson’s techniques and the impressive results.

Johnson incorporated Ultimate Athlete Concepts in 2003, but it was still very much a side venture. That was mostly because he had been hired to work in a local doctor’s office, applying his techniques to pain management and other conditions that sometimes don’t respond to conventional treatment.

But Johnson kept getting calls for help from young athletes, whom he tried very hard to avoid.

“I knew I was on to something, and people started coming out of the woodwork seeking help,” Johnson said. “But I really had no interest in working with high school kids. I was getting a lot of calls about working with kids, but I usually turned them down.”

But one kid, Clayton Carroll of Holland, wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept calling Johnson until he finally wore him down.

“This kid’s number kept showing up on my phone,” Johnson said. “He was just relentless.”

Carroll was an interesting case. At 6-6 he certainly had the height for basketball. But he was slow, uncoordinated and had two bad knees. He was cut from the varsity team in his senior year at Holland Christian High School.

After working with Johnson, Carroll added 11 inches to his vertical jump made the basketball team at Covenant College in Georgia.

“I took a kid who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time and he ended up a college athlete,” Johnson said. “That’s when I started to like working with high school kids. I didn’t think I would.”

Over the next few years Johnson worked with a number of local athletes, and helped each improve their skills and reach the collegiate level.

The list includes Muskegon Catholic’s Zach Campbell, who went on to play football at Elmhurst College; Orchard View’s Zach Knoll, who went on to play football at Hope College; North Muskegon’s Matt Mills, who went on to play football at Western Michigan University; and Fremont’s Joey Frendo, who went on to play football at the University of Findlay in Ohio.

Mills was one of Johnson’s outstanding students.

“He came to me at the end of his junior season,” Johnson said. “He was about 149 pounds at the time, slow and weak.”

During his time with Johnson, Mills went from pressing 185 for one rep pounds to 225 for 14 reps, improved his time in the 40 yard dash from 5.15 to 4.5, and extended his vertical jump from 23 inches to 36 inches. His 20 yard shuttle improved to a 4.10, which would have him put him in the top three at the National Football League combine that year.

“Two and a half years later, he made the Western Michigan University football team as a walk-on,” Johnson said. “They had a combine for all 105 players, and he was number one in his cumulative performance”

Campbell started working with Johnson at the age of 13.

“He added 21 inches to his vertical leap in three years,” Johnson said. “That never happens.”

PUBLISHING AND CONSULTING

Ultimate Athlete Concepts is more than just an athletic training and consulting business. It’s also a successful book publishing company.

Secrets cover

In 2009 a Russian sports scientist wanted to sell one of his books in the U.S. Yessis was no longer interested, so he passed the opportunity on to Johnson, who suddenly found himself in the publishing business.

Five years later Johnson has published 15 books, mostly by Russian authors, all focused on athletic performance.

He used some of the revenue from his publishing efforts to expand his athletic training business. And the books he published put him in contact with strength and conditioning coaches from colleges around the nation.

Before he knew it, Johnson was working as a consultant for strength and conditioning coaches on several campuses, including the University of Richmond, Michigan Tech, the University of Minnesota and Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Ryan Bracius, the assistant strength and conditioning coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater, has been consulting with Johnson for about four years.

Bracius had studied Soviet techniques before meeting Johnson, but was more focused on techniques for elite athletes. He said Johnson taught him the very different art of working with developing athletes.

“He showed me the ABC’s while I was reading about X,Y znd Z,” said Bracius, who added that he now talks to Johnson at least three times per week on the phone. “He showed me how to train younger athletes and develop them.”

One of Bracuis’ previous jobs was at Rockford University, where he put a lot of Johnson’s techniques into practice, particularly with the football team.

The team wasn’t very good, going 0-11 one recent season. But he said eight of the players from that winless team were first-team all-conference, mostly because they spent the previous summer working with him applying techniques suggested by Johnson.

Bracius is now wrapping up his first academic year at Wisconsin Whitewater, where he also introduced Johnson’s philosophy. He’s convinced that the training helped a football team that was not favored to win its conference go all the way to a Division 3 national championship last year.

The men’s basketball team also won a national title this winter, while the women’s team made the national Final Four.

At the end of the football and basketball seasons, most of the players tested faster and stronger than they were in the beginning, Bracius said.

“When we tested the women, all of them set personal records for their fastest times, after a seven month basketball season,” Bracius said. “After the football season, we had 19 guys back squat 500 pounds-plus. That’s pretty impressive.

“A lot of the exercises are really no different. Backsquats are backsquats, bench presses are bench presses. It’s the application. At certain times of the year you change tempo. You concentrate on strength at a certain point, speed at another, and tactical abilities at another.

“If you put it all together, you can have a dominant athlete.”

HELPING REETHS-PUFFER RECOVER

Despite his growing national reputation, Johnson maintains his local connections and continues to benefit local athletes.

A recent example is the Reeths-Puffer athletic program, particularly its recently resuscitated football team.

It began in 2012, when Aaron Szura, the athletic trainer at Reeths-Puffer, ordered a book from Ultimate Athlete Concepts online and was amused to see that it was mailed from a Muskegon address.

It wasn’t long before he heard from Johnson, who offered to help if Szura wanted to learn more.

Like so many others, Szura had never heard of Johnson, but was willing to listen.

Soon he was applying Johnson’s techniques in the weight room at Reeths-Puffer, and found that they made a very big difference.

“I think it’s the variety of the exercises, and how everything ties together,” Szura said. “All of the exercises build on each other and they all tie into the grand scheme of the function of whatever the athletic skill is. It’s just not about being the strongest. It’s about being strong and being able to apply that strength to the specific task you are asked to do.”

The specific nature of Johnson’s programs also allows the young athletes to avoid exhaustion and unnecessary injuries, Szura said.

“We were certainly guilty of overworking them in the past,” Szura said. “Everybody always wants to do more, more, more, but the reality is that most everybody overworks kids. Injuries are up and performance is down.

“The focus in on technique, then application of your strength into a skill. The difference in the athletes is obvious. There is a noticeable difference in what they can do.”

Johnson’s advice has played a role in helping the Reeths-Puffer football program come back to life. After years of losing seasons, the Rockets rebounded to finish second in the O-K Black Conference last fall and earn a spot in the state playoffs.

“(Johnson’s advice) has really been applied to football in the largest sense,” Szura said. “That group of kids really ate it up. I know our line definitely benefitted from it.

“It’s obvious why what we were doing didn’t work and why we were unsuccessful. It’s all been really good. We’ve been working the kids less, yet they are stronger and faster. We haven’t had a rash of muscle pulls in two years now.”

Even though his work connects him with athletes around the nation and world, Johnson is proud that he can still benefit local schools and athletes.

“It’s intriguing to see my work play itself out in front of me in a team setting,” said Johnson. “I really enjoy working with Aaron at Reeths-Puffer. It allows me to work with a team without being the full-time guy.”

Johnson noted that Reeths-Puffer has become a heated football rival of Muskegon, his alma mater. Muskegon beat R-P twice last season, but Johnson can picture the Rockets getting the best of the Big Reds in the future.

“I think that will take about two more years,” he said.

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