Herr. Zellmer popped on my radar more then a year ago. His FB profile looks something like this. Michael “Mize” Zellmer, a two time Olympian Water Polo Goalie from Hannover, Germany and currently lives in Huntington Beach, California. I used to study in California. I currently live in Germany. Also Goalkeeper. Honestly I don’t know who added who over Facebook, but for the whole duration of our “friendship” I was always paying attention to what Herr Zellmer was doing with his goalkeeper academy.
I had no specific opinion about him. On his FB I have seen videos which show how he works with the young goalkeepers and I would read what he would write. By now you probably know that I rarely agree with anybody haha and with Herr Zellmer is not any different, but I must admit that he never said, or wrote anything what I was completely against. German goalkeeper schools are legendary in more sports and what is so specific about them is making the basics the most important element of your game. A goalkeeper never stops working on his basics. Herr Zellmer never stops working on his goalkeepers basics. At least that was my impression. I never met Herr Zellmer, nor have we seen each other. I thought that he went to US because he found himself a job there and on the side he founded a goalkeeper academy. The other day I saw him posting some home exercises for goalkeepers. I wanted to share it on my timeline too, but instead I decided to DM him. DM for those who don’t know is an acronym derived from Direct Message. I introduced myself, said that I write for this media outlet and asked Herr Zellmer if he was willing to do an interview with me. To my excitement he responded writing that he knows who I am and that he regularly reads what I write on my blog and share on my Facebook. He was kind enough to accept my offer and that same week we have facetimed for some 30 minutes. Facetiming for those who don’t know is same as talking over Skype, but over some other platform. WhatsApp in our case. It was an interesting talk where I found out that Mize has only one job and that’s being a Water Polo coach running his own goalkeeper academy. I repeated myself thinking that he did not understood my German. To my amazement once again he explained to me that he is a full time Water Polo coach running his own goalkeeper academy and currently living in Huntington Beach, California.
1. Hello, Mize. Wie gehts? How are you? How’s Huntington Beach?
Thank you or better “Danke”. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about my Water Polo life and especially how it came that I started my Water Polo Academy – The Perfect Goalie here in Southern California! You already mentioned in your introduction that being a Water Polo Goalie Coach is my main job (on a side note: I am still active in some other projects). That is something I never expected even to be possible and that was definitely not my intention when I decided to move to California. I never saw myself as a coach and I pictured myself to be daily at the beach playing some Beach Volleyball!!
2. Yes, you really sound like an American Dream gone bad haha, but before we start speaking about your present, I think that it is only fitting that we go to the beginnings of your Water Polo journey. How did young Mize got himself involved with Water Polo? Could you explain to us what did Water Polo mean to you as you were a kid “back in the day”.
Not too many people know that I am from a little village in northwestern Germany named Hude. There was a senior WP team playing in a lower division (only 3 or 4 other teams where within 100 km reach) without any age group program. My buddy and I (we were 9 or so) have been curious what this sport was about. The coach liked the idea of building a team around us and so he started to develop an on federal state level competitive youth program. In fact, I was also a talented soccer field player (I started playing soccer with 5 years) and so my challenge was to manage both activities side by side. This led me to the situation that I had to decide in 1992 if I wanted to play the Northern German Championships in soccer or Water Polo because the events have been scheduled for the same weekend. Of course, as a goalie I decided to be there for my WP team. We won the competition and for the same time my soccer team claimed the gold medal as well. So, this has been a real double-gold weekend for me!! This success in Water Polo was already with the club SPVG Laatzen (close to Hannover) where I transferred to in 1990 and spent my major youth water polo career at. Laatzen is about 150 km away from my home village Hude so I travelled from the age of 13 on my own for 2-3 times a week by train to Hannover to practice with my team! Can you believe that?
3. Mize is this one of those stories you tell your kids when you want to teach them a lesson? “Listen Kinder, when your Vater was 13 he had to go by train 2-3 times per week. 150 km hin und 150 km Zurueck” haha. How did your life later develop? Have you worked and studied, or were you fully focused on Water Polo? Which clubs have you played for and how professional was professional water polo in you hay day? How did young Mize became a two time Olympian?
In January 1995 I received the offer to transfer school to have even better training conditions for Water Polo and finish my degree (Abitur) in Hannover. I moved into an apartment with 7 other high-performance athletes from all kind of sports that has been organized by the Olympic Center in Hannover. This was a great step in my life because I left my home (at the age of 17), decided to terminate my soccer career and focus just on Water Polo from that point on. Perhaps my parents don’t like to hear that too much but reviewing my life I would say the best time started from now. I loved living on my own and being kind of fully responsible for my decisions and activities. For sure, I still got great support from my parents and they would help me with everything I needed. In fall 1995 I transferred to the first division team of Waspo Hannover and made it within the first season to the starter goalie. Waspo Hannover had to rebuild the team after winning the German Championship in 1993 and was at that time ranked between 6 and 8, I would say. From that point we had only one objective and that was getting back to the title! With players like Lars Tomanek, Sven Reinhardt, Marc Politze and Soeren Mackeben only to mention a few names we won our first title with the German Cup in 1998 (which after all was my greatest memory in Water Polo) and challenged the reigning champion Spandau 04 three consecutive times from 2000 to 2002 in the play-off finals for the German Championships – unfortunately not with a successful outcome. But in two of these three years we went into the decisive fifth match and lost after over-time, so it has been at least close!! My real international career started in 1996 with playing the Junior European Championships. In 1997 I had the honor to participate in the Junior World Championships and also in the Senior European Championships. From there on, I never missed an international highlight (where we qualified for) until the end of my international career after the Olympics in 2008 when I applied to change my position to be the newly installed professional team-manager for the Men’s National Team.
4. “Freakin Spandau.” Said no player ever, after he just lost the Finals against Spandau haha. I have heard a few of those stories about losing to Spandau, three, four years in a row. Your opinion. Is the dominance of Spandau a compliment to the club, or a reflection of German Water Polo? German Water Polo is not the only competition where one club has dominated like Spandau has, but what does that say to those who are just getting acquainted with the German Water Polo? How has one club maintained its dominance and relevance for so long?
After all these years and reflecting a lot about the “Spandau situation” I just would pay huge respect to Spandau that they managed it year by year to stay on top of the league. Especially in the time when we have risen with Waspo again around 2000 we made it to win every other game against Spandau. But eventually they collected the big titles. In 2002 we have been in the decisive fifth final in Berlin and at half time we have been in the lead by 4:1 I think. We were sitting in our locker room with our great team and swore to each other that this time there would be no doubt that we make it to the crown! But as you know the history it ended up again with a loss after over-time, which shows the mental strength of the team of Spandau in this period. The dominance of Spandau overall is definitely a concerning sign for the state of Water Polo in Germany and the lack of competition. I am happy to see that we currently have two teams in Germany with Spandau and Waspo 98 Hannover that are highly competitive to each other and also on international level. To have at least 5-6 teams of this level in the DWL would be awesome.
5. I also noticed how you write soccer. Does that mean that Americans and not Europeans are your targeted group? 🙂
My idea and goal are to contribute and give back the most I can to Water Polo worldwide, but I am also realistic that everything I have created with my WP Academy – The Perfect Goalie would not have been possible anywhere else than here in California! The quantity of ambitious athletes and also parents here is absolutely unique. I have my own philosophy about developing athletes and especially Water Polo goalies and strive to spread this idea – which is no rocket science – to as many athletes as possible in the world. Within my clinics and camps, I am meeting so many great kids, parents and coaches and realize the sparkle in their eyes after these events. This is my major motivation to tour the US and the world to make this accessible to everyone! In fact, I even started to improve my Spanish to be able to run future events perhaps partly in Spanish – so we would be back to futból instead of soccer, haha!! Not sure which other languages I will add then …
6. I forgot to ask you, I presume that, as you were accomplishing your childhood dreams with Water Polo, you were also either working, or studying on the side, right?
Yes, I had to! Water Polo especially in that time was nothing to get rich from. I was lucky to have a good university in Hannover where I started to study economics in 1997. I received my diploma degree in 2005 (in fact, there was no real chance to get this finished quicker with all the summer Water Polo activities). In fall 2005 I started to work full time for the regional telecommunication supplier htp in Hannover (they offered me some extra days off to cover the 60-70 days of National Team activities per year) and still made it to the Olympics three years later what made me really proud. From 2009 I still kept on playing for Waspo Hannover but focused on the new challenge to develop the Men’s National Team to a more professional situation.
7. Can you pin point the moment, or the situation when you decided that “you’ve had enough” of playing Water polo at the highest level?
I think after the Olympics 2008 I made my decision that this has been a great highlight to terminate my real ambitions to achieve more. The situation on the goalie position was that we had with 40-year-old former Russian Alexander Tchigir a starting goalie in the National Team who still was among the 3 best in the world and decided to continue playing. I loved the idea to be able to help the National Team from the pool deck and give something back to the sport that I love and so I agreed with the National Team Coach Hagen Stamm that in case I should be successful with my application for the Team-Manager position I would terminate my active international career and fully focus on that new job. I kept on playing for Waspo Hannover because there was no real quality goalie available who would take over my position and it took until 2010, I think, when Roger Kong from Spandau 04 transferred to Hannover to let me out of the cage! I re-started playing soccer on the masters team of Hannover 96 and that has been quite fun and kept me in shape … but that is another story!
8. So I can safely presume that, if there was a possibility for you to play for the National Team as a starting goalie you would have continued to play. How would you have managed with your daily job? How do German employers treat their employees that “on the side” play Water Polo, both professionally and for the Nationalmannschaft?
I think if I would have seen a realistic chance to play another Olympic cycle as the starting goalie for the National Team I would have decided for that route, because eventually there is nothing more fulfilling for yourself then competing as an athlete on the highest level to prove that there is one thing that you can do better than anyone else. Also, to be part of a great group of people that fights for the same goal from day to day makes your life really enjoyable! I keep it with the advice of Hagen Stamm: “Play as long as you can, there is enough time left to work in your life!” In my special situation I saw the great potential of taking over as the team-manager for the National Team and therefore to combine my work with the feeling of being part of the team, so I haven’t had to give up too much!! In general, unfortunately there are not too many employers in Germany that appreciate enough the unique qualities of high-performance athletes for their business. I think if more companies would realize that employing an athlete even as a part-time employee would benefit its whole working atmosphere and efficiency, the situation for athletes would dramatically change because no-one needed to worry too much about the future after the athletic career anymore.
9. Fast forward few years to year 2020. Mize is a full time Water Polo coach. Specialized in working with goalkeepers. Running his own academy called The Perfect Goalie. Sitting in sun, next to his pool in Huntington Beach. Drinking some drink which looks like it should refresh a camel after the desert. Currently getting interviewed over Facetime by yours truly. Not a bad situation you got yourself there in Mize haha. Could you tell me what does Perfect Goalie mean for you? Is that a set of drills which will make any kid into a flawless goalkeeper, or are there some other secrets which you keep hidden in that academy of yours?
Definitely not much to add to your description of my current living situation, haha!! Except that I also have a wonderful wife and daughter with me here who are making my life complete. When people heard about our family plan to move to the US, most of them were super happy for us but also worried what such a step could mean for our life. I always said, we have two options: Either we will be back in Germany in 6, 12 or 24 months or we made it over there! Both options were not too bad!! It turned out that ‘The Perfect Goalie’ is the idea and project that I was looking for over the last 15 years. To have something unique where I am in the lead and can show all qualities that I have to offer, and people are grateful that I am there! The Perfect Goalie is not just a set of drills how you describe it above. No, it is a whole philosophy how to approach a life as an athlete, to work on the right things to the right time and to take the opportunities once they appear. I don’t have any secrets that I wouldn’t make accessible, but I want to make sure that coaches, athletes and parents who are transporting my philosophy really understand the message behind it!
10. Do you think that with time you could teach your knowledge to other Water Polo coaches which could then run their own certified Perfect Goalie Academies? Or to just ask you bluntly. Do you plan to turn your Perfect Goalie Academy into a certified Brand, or are you just satisfied with earning a bit of money and enjoying the Californian sun drinking refreshing drinks?
Yes, I would love to spread out my philosophy to the world and have other coaches supporting me with that. People are asking me every once a while if I don’t have to get a copyright on certain parts of my philosophy, but I don’t agree with that. I want to have all my ideas accessible to everyone who thinks that would be helpful and yes, I am making a living out of this. The whole point of my WP academy is not that I am teaching something that hasn’t been taught before. It is the way how I bring it to the athletes. It is not that running the goalie sessions or clinics is just reading a plan with drills and that’s it. Every event or service is its own masterpiece where I think about the structure and adapt the curriculum even during a training session to the needs and demands of the athletes that I am working with. And this is something that I need to figure out how to teach it to coaches or former players who could help me with that. My plan definitely is to have ‘The Perfect Goalie’ as a worldwide trusted brand for coaches, parents and athletes for a structured and healthy way to get the best out of each athlete! And as a side note: Refreshing drinks under the Californian sun always taste best when you have accomplished something great that you can be proud of, so I need to work with those athletes to really earn this quality of life every day!!
11. I have seen that you are working with Tony Azevedo also. What did you pick up from Tony about running your own Brand? Are there any differences between clinics for goalkeepers and clinics for players? Do your combine your clinics and kids from both academies, or are you keeping it separate?
Yes, Tony and I established a partnership for any events where there is need of a goalie part and where he does not have a high-quality local solution as a goalie instructor available. We knew each other from our time playing internationally and I reached out to him when I saw the potential to make his clinics and camps even better, since you always need goalies to offer shooting for players, but not many coaches can give these goalies a real benefit in these events. Usually we structure our events that goalies and players are separated for the first part and combine them afterwards. Tony is a great personality and he really wants to develop something for the Water Polo world. This matches exactly with my philosophy. I really enjoy working with him and this is one of the reasons why we also started a mutual weekly event in Long Beach, CA called “Shooting Seesion” where Tony works with up to 20 players improving their variety of shooting techniques and I work with the goalies to teach them how to best block these shots. Regarding the learning perspective, I am always trying to pick up something from every coach. Those might be things that I like or even things that I don’t like. Tony definitely offers a lot of aspects that are worth to be implemented in your style of coaching, so it is blessing for me to work with him on a weekly basis.
12. As we were writing this interview Herr Mize has also given one more interview. This time it was on a German Water Polo Podcast called Water polo Expert Talk Podcast which is hosted by Andreas Schulze-Kopp. Your interview was in German, but on the Podcast Herr Schulze-Kopp said that he also plans to have English speaking guests. Could you tell me how that experience was?
Absolutely. I liked the idea of a German Water Polo podcast immediately when Andreas reached out to me. I felt really honored to be the first guest on this new format. I know Andreas from our mutual time playing for SPVG Laatzen some 25 years ago and he followed my career from that point on. The interview was the first time we talked with each other for at least 10 years, but it has been as we met with each other just yesterday. During our 60 min talk we jumped between the topics National Team, my life as a goalie, Water Polo here in the US, and my view on the current German Water Polo situation … I think a super interesting episode for this podcast to start with! (click here: https://podcastaf9ba7.podigee.io/1-vom-nationalspieler-zum-nachwuchstrainer-in-den-usa?fbclid=IwAR17i2rS9Jxi95-LMSyg1RMXE6UBRQbI0-oSixOy5vxwMdLk_Amk_1derpk)
13. How are you wife and daughter dealing with all of this. New life. California after Germany. Stuff like this could break families or make them even tighter. How has this life challenge affected the core of your family? I know that personal questions are not the type of questions that the Germans like, but hey… there is a first for everything haha
Actually, my wife was the one that pushed the decision to move to California and live in the sun! So she has absolutely no right to complain, haha!! But seriously, both my girls love to be out here in Huntington Beach! It needed a little time but now my wife also has a really fulfilling job and still can pursue her athletic activities with playing some Beach Volleyball, jogging at the beach and doing some work outs on our porch. My daughter loves the environment here as well and is a native American English and German speaker, which probably is not the worst thing! We developed many good friendships with people from all over the world that settled here in Southern California and having the beach in front of your door as a backup scenario if you don’t know what else to do is kind of nice!! Another fun aspect of living here is that every once a while random people from Germany that we more or less knew are having their vacation in Southern California and so we have already had a lot of dinners with people that we haven’t even met in person for years back in Germany!!
Danke very much for this Interview. It was a pleasure and „eine Ehre“ for this media outlet and me personally. Wish you all the best and I hope to see your family, your Academy and you doing well in the future. Bleib Gesund and godspeed.
*Photography: Minette Rubin
Vocabular of foreign Words in this interview
Wie geht’s? – How’s it going? (how are you?)
Danke – Thank you
Bleib Gesund – Stay Healthy (wishing you health)
Eine Ehre – An honor
Nationalmanschaft – National Team
Hin und Zurueck – To and from
LG (liebe grüße) – Best Regards
Futból – Football
Soccer – Football