Interview with John Spina from The Philadelphia Cricket Club

March 6, 2011

There is an infinite amount of knowledge out there and one of PIFG's initiatives is to draw it all out. John Spina is the Director of Instruction at The Philadelphia Cricket Club in Flourtown, Pennsylvania. John was awarded the Philadelphia Sections Teacher of the Year Award in 2004. John is also ranked by Golf Digest as one the Top-15 Teachers in Pennsylvania. John has been very kind to lend his perspective into the world pf instruction and how assistant professionals can sharpen their skills as teachers.

We all have a different paths throughout our careers, I think it’s important for young assistants to hear the paths of other professionals. Describe your background in the golf business and why you got into it.

Upon graduating college with a degree in Education, I had some hard decisions to make for my future. I knew that I loved the game of golf, but did not realize I could make a career out of it. I was fortunate enough to meet local PGA Professional, Gary Hardin, who took the time to mentor me and steer me in the right direction. Gary helped me land my first Assistant job at Eagle Lodge in 1993. I stayed there as an Assistant until 1999 when I began working for PGA Professional Jim Smith at Talamore CC. It was at Talamore when my career shifted and I began to specialize in teaching. In 2005 Jim and I moved on to the Philadelphia Cricket Club where Jim took the Director of Golf position and I took the Director of Instruction position.

The Cricket Club has what I believe to be one of the best practice facilities in the Philadelphia area, how has your experience there enhanced your ability as an instructor?

Having a first class facility allows me as a teacher to work on all aspects of the game with my students. Many clubs have driving ranges, yet few have top notch short game areas to help strengthen all aspects of the game. I also have two studios at PCC which allows us to provide state of the art video technology to enhance our students learning experience.

As an instructor, what is it that makes you "John Spina" to your members?

One of the greatest lessons I learned from both Gary Hardin and Jim Smith is that at the end of the day your reputation is all you have. That being said, the moment I joined the Philadelphia Section, I made sure to always treat my fellow professionals with respect. This includes everyone from the bag boys and caddies at visiting clubs to the GM of the dining room. Each person deserves my full respect. When dealing with my members I have always made it a point to "figure out a way to say 'Yes". When a member asks for an early lesson, I ask them "how early do you want to come?" I also make it a point to do the little "extras" which make a huge difference with my members...sending a good luck text before a big match or sending a congratulatory e-mail or even a simple phone call to help pick up someone’s spirits. I know this doesn't sound like a big deal, but these little things make a huge impact on members

This philosophy shows your members how much you care and are willing to do for them and their games. Every member wants to feel special and if you make it a point to do this you will gain their respect.

What did you do in your early years as a teaching professional to set yourself up for your current success and future success?

I LISTENED. Too often teachers are not good listeners. Every time I have had an opportunity to pick the brain of another experienced PGA Professional I stopped talking and I listened. This is the greatest piece of advice I could give any young assistant. We learn from each other.

What are some aspects of your teaching business that if you didn't do them well, it would be detrimental to your business?

Organization is one of the keys to running a successful business. If you are not organized you will make mistakes that will have a direct impact on your business. This is critical. This includes booking, reminder phone calls, clinics, schedules etc. Disorganization creates chaos.

In most circumstances, assistant professionals wear all of the hats (tournament operations, merchandising, personnel leadership and management, etc.), some times instruction can get lost in the whirlwind of it all. Considering all of this, how do you think assistant professionals can be better teachers and take steps to really know the craft and teach the game well?

At the very least, Assistants need to stay up to date on the latest teaching techniques, theories and philosophies. They need to read and do their due diligence if they want to get to the next level.

With that said, as opposed to "at the very least", what are some ways assistants can really go above and beyond in their learning process and stretch themselves to reach their maximum potential?

If I was an assistant looking to become the Best teacher then I would find out who the Top 3 teachers in my Area or section were and call them and ask if you could either sit in on a lesson or ask him Questions for an hour. Oh yeah, then you have to BE QUIET AND LISTEN! Just take in all that you see and hear, and you will learn a lot.

Can you give young teaching professionals any direction with regard to steps towards forming their teaching philosophy?

Great Question! What I see with successful teachers is they have a core set of principles that they use as a Blueprint. For a example, whether it’s Stack and Tilt or Jim Hardy’s "One Plane" or Eddie Merrin’s "Swing the Handle”, the teacher must get a grasp on a Philosophy and style. He / or She must then be able to adapt accordingly to their students. So the real Question the Teacher must then ask themselves is WHAT PHILOSOPHY IS BEST FOR ME? I think you have to do your homework, read articles, talk to other professionals, study video, gather data etc. And formulate your opinions on how the game would be best taught by you to your players. You have BELIEVE what you are saying because your convictions are a big part of your believability to your students. Whatever Philosophy, BELIEVE IN IT!

What are the overarching principles you stand by as a teaching professional and would like other teachers/assistants to stand by?

My philosophy stands by a blue print of four main ideas.
  • Build players around sound fundamentals including grips, stance, ball position etc. 
  • Build players motion around rotation of the body. The usage of the bigger muscles in the modern day player is the engine that drives the motion.
  • I try to give my players a basic understanding of swing shape and plane. 
  • Develop a connection of the arms and body so the motion is compact and together.
If a young apprentice comes to you and says, "I want to be the best teaching professional I can be", what would you tell him/her and how to get there?

I would tell him to stay organized, listen when around experienced professionals, do the little extras and continue to learn and gather knowledge.

Who have been your mentors and what have you learned from them?

I have had two phenomenal mentors in Gary Hardin and Jim Smith. Gary taught me how to play the game as well as how to teach the game better. He has always been a huge sounding board for me throughout the years and is someone whom I really admire both personally and professionally. Jim Smith is in my opinion the most well rounded golf professional I have ever been associated with. He has helped me to understand the business of golf and how to run a successful instructional program. He has taught me that the everyday business fundamentals must be adhered too at all times.

Do you have any books you could recommend aspiring teaching professionals to read?

Ben Hogan’s Five Fundamentals,
Jack Nicklaus' Golf My Way

In your experiences as a teaching professional, I'm sure you have seen and worked with your fair share of teaching professionals. What sets the great ones apart from others?

The ones that do the little extras.

Well put, John. Thank you so much for your time. The golf business is a tough and sometimes unforgiving business. Your contribution will go a long towards helping assistant professionals along their particular career path.