Interview with Goalie John Gansell

Sandy Vessey-Schneider
Water Polo Planet

John GansellI chose to interview John Gansel because I remember him playing around the same time as Craig Wilson, and to me these were the best there was. John was tall and lean like many goalies, but his abilities set him apart. As you read this interview you will notice his thoughtfulness and intellect, which probably led him to being an orthopedic surgeon today. For those very academic athletes looking into colleges and playing water polo, you may struggle with how to balance the two, and just like John, sometimes it is a tough decision.

Where did you grow up?  Santa Ana, California

What clubs did you play for?  1977 Southern California Allstars, 1978 to 1980 Stanford Water Polo Club, 1981 to 1985 Newport Water Polo Club

WhatHigh School and College did you go to and when?  1973 to 1977 Foothill High School, 1977 to 1981 Stanford University

What years did you play on the National/ Olympic Teams (if applicable)?  I played on the Junior National Team starting in 1977 and then the National Team from 1978 to 1985.  I played in the World Championships in Ecuador, and went to 3 University Games (we won in Mexico), never made it to an Olympics, I started medical school in 1982 and my polo career ran out of time.

1. What drills do feel are the best for the following: (a). Lateral movement, (b). Leg strength, (c). Reaction time?

Lateral movement:  High corner lunges, start in set position facing the net in the center of the cage, come up and then lunge to the right upper cage corner and come down with legs under you, then back to center cage and lunge to the left corner and come down with legs under you, then back to the middle and repeat.  It is an all out burst and 5 times to each corner at 100% was pretty exhausting.

Leg Strength:  we did egg beater in the diving tank holding a 10 poundweightsover head, we would go forward, sideways, backwards and at different intensities, but for about 30 minutes while the field players were doing their warmup/conditioning

Reaction time:  blocking shots from a player on the 5 meter line who was receiving balls in rapid succession.  He would get ten shots and was not allowed to pump fake.  As soon as he could get his arm up he would receive a pass and have to shoot again.

2. A two on one counter attack is coming your way, how do you communicate with your defense?

I would pick the weaker shooter and communicate it to my defender.  I would also have my defender stunt and drop, and if possible get the shot from a bad angle (ie from a right handed shooter, hopefully the shot will be coming from my left side at a bad angle.  Finally, I tried to bait the shooter by giving him what looked like a hole to shoot at and then closing it when he had committed to his shot.

3. What 6 on 5 defense do you prefer to work with and why?

I would call it a basic 3/2, initially all the defenders would be dropped in tight, and then gradually pressing out.  Often trying to get the shot from the weakest shooter.

4. How do you communicate with your 2m defense? Give examples of directions you give and why.

If I was coming out to try to intercept a pass and my defender was on the hole sets back, I would have a hand on my defenders back pushing him a littleJohn Gansell one way or the other without saying anything.  If he felt my hand my defender knew he could help bait the passer by overplaying the other side, encouraging the pass to come in to the hole on the side I was coming out on.  If my defender was facing me and fronting the hole set, I was talking and pointing in the direction of the ball.  If my defender had good positioning I was also letting my other teammates know not to foul.

5. How do handle “one on goalies”?

I tried to lure the shooter in a little closer to cut down the shooting angle by cranking my legs but staying low in the water with my hands up.  As the shooter got closure and the ball was in a shooting position I tried to get higher in the water with hands coming up higher but not overextended.  all the time trying to move closer to the ball to close the angle but not to far from the cage to be vulnerable to the lob.  when the shot was finally committed hopefully your body is between the ball and the cage with both hands moving toward the ball.

6. What advise can you give a high school goalie?

You are the leader of the defense and the beginning of the offense.  Communicate with your defenders, let them know where you want them, where the ball is, where you want the shot from, when you want their hands up, and what angles you want them to cover.  On the counter attack, look to see where your team’s advantage is and where to pass the ball to get it to the counter attack leader coming in from the best side for his shot.

7. What skills, talent, and physical traits do you think are important to become a top notch goalie?

Egg beater strength.  I always felt I was in a stronger position if I was looking down at the shooter, and then lateral mobility, I felt my game improved a lot with the side to side lunge drill.  Leg strength is also the secret to great outlet passes.  Finally, every practice /every shot is a competition, you against the shooter, I liked to win.

8. What was your favorite game, and what made it so special?

NCAA finals 1980, it was the culmination of 4 great college seasons  playing under coach Dante Dettamanti (I think probably the greatest college coach of all time and a great person) with great teammate friends who were also great polo players (Jody Cambell, Alan Mouchawar, Chris Kelsey, Bill Taylor, Steve Smith, Jamie Bergeson, Vince Vanelli, Brian Feliz, John Tanner, Johnny Henderson).  I was fortunate to play behind some of the best players in the US, it is no understatement that they made me look good.  We won.

9. How has the game changed for goalies since you played?

Allowing a fouled shooter a free quick shot outside the 5 meter line was a hard rule to adjust to.  I like taking penalty shots from the 5 meter, I think it gives the goalie a better chance at a save.  It seems like there is less counter attack and the game has become set offence and 6 on 5 oriented.  A big part of the game was the lead out pass on the counter attack which may be less relevant in todays game but there was glory in throwing a long bomb into the throwing hand of a open streaking counter attacker  25 meters away.

As I said before, I felt John’s answers were extremely thoughtful in that he gives so much credit to his team. It’s easy to tell high school goalies that they should be tall and quick but these are aspects a young player has no control over. John discusses the importance of leg strength and constant communication with ones team as what made the biggest difference in his game,  and that advice is solid no matter what your size or age is. As mentioned earlier his academic choices played a role in the direction his water polo and professional career went, and perhaps that should be the most important factor for students when choosing colleges. Again, I hope this interview serves as a guide and teaching tool for coaches mentoring goalies

Water Polo Team.