ESS Professors in Profile: Jon Spaventa


Oscar Cortez
Staff Writer
Photo By: Oscar Cortez

Jon Spaventa directs the Exercise and Sports Studies department at UCSB as well as serving as the Director of the Department of Recreation which covers Intramurals, Club sports and their facilities. He also teaches a sports psychology class and has been teaching at UCSB for thirty-one years.

What events led to your career at UCSB and at ESS?

“I always wanted to be involved in physical education and coaching and I started coaching at a very early age, actually with my father-in-law, and that led to an undergraduate degree in the field. So I had a very interesting experience in the field; I’ve taught at all levels from K-6 to the university level, and I’ve taught overseas. I’ve been in a lot of different places-Maine, Chile, Massachusetts-and the common denominator has always been teaching and my love of teaching, particularly training teachers and teaching children and teaching how sports can be a benefit to them.”

Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?

“Typical middle class childhood in Brooklyn, New York; grew up taking the subways and buses. I had what you’d call a normal childhood for New York City. It was a very interesting time to be a young person. We had a lot of changes going on in the world: music exploded when I was a young person, the civil rights movement was upon us, Woodstock came about. There were a lot of interesting experiences growing up in that time.”

On a side note, did you know Mr. Romeo (profiled previously) growing up, because he also grew up in Brooklyn?

“I did happen to know Mr. Romeo. In fact we grew up in a very similar area very close to one another and we enjoyed playing basketball together for quite a few years.”

Is growing up in New York ever ordinary?

“Probably not. Compared to out here it’s certainly quite a difference but you know I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. The experience as a young person was invaluable: you learn about life, you learn about people; it’s exciting. There’re so many cultural and sports events taking place on a regular basis, and the music scene was unbelievable. It was a focal point for a lot of changes taking place around the country so it was an exciting place to be a young person in the ‘60s, in New York City.”

What was your schooling like growing up?

“I went to a specialized high school back in New York City that you had to test into, and I went there because my local high school didn’t have a football team. I wound up getting injured in my second year after having a very positive first year; we had an undefeated team and won a city championship and it was very exciting. Then, my knee was broken up in a collision so I stopped playing football in high school.”

What position did you play?

“I was a running back and a defensive back. I’ve played football from nine years of age and on, in fact I managed to fudge my way into the ten year old league when I was nine because I loved football so much.”

What do you do differently when you teach?

“I try to make class interesting with variety, with interaction and by using technology to the extent that’s possible. And I try to provide an experience for students who can’t wait to come back for the next class.”

If you were not teaching or working in academia, what career would you engage in?

“Well my wife will tell you that I should have been an attorney, but I’m pretty happy about how things have turned out. I feel pretty fortunate to be here and to have the opportunities that I [have] had; this is really a dream-come-true job for me.”

How could understanding of physical science help students?

“Any exercise, any form of activity, is important for all of us not only as we grow but as we age, and our department is one that fosters a lifelong appreciation for exercise and sports and that’s a very valuable gift to give to young people in this day and age. Our programs and classes that deal with the human body-the anatomy, the physiology-are really important for students to learn about how their body functions and how to deal with injuries and how to train. These are all important for athletes so if you’re interested in sports or you’re an athlete then these courses will greatly benefit you. Then on a management level, it teaches general administrative skills that are necessary in many walks of life when you’re dealing with people and organizations. I think on a number of levels we’re dealing with the human body and how it functions, we’re dealing with the benefits of exercise for now and the future, and then we have this component where we actually provide some hands-on experience in managing people, managing programs, managing teams, and I think those experiences resonate with students.”

What does your sports psych class specifically train people for?

“I think students take different things from it depending on what their interests are. We have future coaches in the room who will use it for coaching, we have trainers in there that will pick up principle in dealing with people, to try to motivate people, and then we have managers that are in the class who may use some of the principles for managing people and dealing with people. But the overarching principle of the class is performance enhancement. How do I better understand my own behavior? How do I interact with other people and get the most out of my potential? And that’s really what it’s all about, whether you’re looking at potential as an athlete, as a coach, as trainer or as an administrator: How do I get the most out of myself?

How do you feel about preparing them in life?

“I would say that we’re trying to engage students in thought and [in] how to apply some of what we’re doing to wherever they’re going in life. If you leave the class and you take something that you can apply later on, I think that’s what makes the experience rich, and I think that’s why students enjoy the courses in our department because there’s a practical application for a lot of the knowledge that’s gained in the classes. You’re trying to share information that you’ve come to understand over your lifetime in the hope that students will take it in and grow from it.”

What makes you different from other teachers in terms of style of teaching?

“There’s something about the connection that our lectures make with students on a personal basis. Most of our instructors are not engaged in research; they really focus on teaching, and I think because of that, the quality of teaching is at a very high level. I think the students recognize that and appreciate the fact that they’re being taught by a professional who’s there to teach them.”

Tell us something about yourself that you’d like your students to know.

“I hope that students I have the pleasure of teaching can recognize my love of teaching and my concern for them, that I care about them.”

Parting shot to students?

“Well at the end of each quarter I leave students with a couple of thoughts. I think based upon all of the years that you’re on the planet, you develop a philosophy, a set of understandings, about life and what’s important. I try to leave them three things. The first one is the importance of passion in whatever you do. You really need to do something in life that you love, do what you’re committed to. Follow your dreams, don’t let money get in the way of what you want to do and don’t let anyone discourage you from doing what you want to do. Find passion in your life and pursue that. The second thing is surround yourself with good people, people you can trust and who can help your achieve your goals in life and reach your potential. The last thing is to work hard and to persevere. I think that to a degree it’s somewhat of a lost art. In order to get ahead you have to show up in life and that means working hard, making an effort, sacrificing and being prepared. So I think that if you’ve got passion for something, if you surround yourself with good people and if you work hard, then you will become a successful person in life.”


  1. Hi Jon. Were you at the famed Woodstock NY 1969 festival?

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