Jeff Lulla ‘76 (Physical Education), remembers living in an apartment building next to a construction site as a child.
“In the evenings, we would take walks around the neighborhood, and we would go to a vantage point and look over this big excavation site,” he recalls. “My parents said, ‘One day, you’re going to go to school here.’ That was my first involvement with California State University, Northridge.”
Little did young Lulla know that not only would he attend CSUN, it would elevate him to the top of the professional gymnastics world and lead him to be an innovator in sports psychology.
Lulla loves gymnastics. Always one of the younger and shorter boys in his grade, he was frequently picked last whenever it came to teams. That is until one day when he discovered a set of hanging rings in his high school gym. He found that because of his smaller stature, he was able to maneuver effortlessly on the rings, and had a real talent for gymnastics.
Eager to get more involved with the sport, he began volunteering at the local YMCA at the age of 16 and was soon offered a position coaching the youth teams. He loved the job, and said that he would have been willing to continue on for free as long as he could continue to pursue his passion.
Upon graduating from high school, Lulla enrolled in CSUN as a physical education major. He loved how the work at his YMCA coaching job and the lessons he was learning in the classroom fit together so naturally, and he began applying what he learned at CSUN immediately at his workplace. He worked to change the culture of coaching and training, and soon discovered an innovative way to encourage a love for physical fitness in the youth he trained.
For as long as Lulla could remember, exercise had been used as a form of punishment. Whenever a coach would tell a team that it was time for conditioning, it would be met with a large moan. And Lulla realized that they had inadvertently created an association between exercise and the feeling of having to do work. Eager to dispel these negative associations, Lulla conducted an experiment for a final report for one of his classes.
He handed out journals to the students he coached at the YMCA, and had them answer some questions. The first page was for what they loved about gymnastics, and why. The second was for what their individual goals were. After that, Lulla had them turn to the next page and write out a list of common exercises, such as push-ups and chin-ups. Then he pulled out his stopwatch, set a time of 10 seconds, and hit go. Each student then did as many repetitions of that exercise as they could. They would then wait for a short period, and would do the same exercise again for another 10 seconds.
Lulla ran his students through the conditioning exercises every day for around three weeks, rewarding a student whenever they hit a certain milestone, such as learning a new move. This reward came in the form of the whole class cheering them on as they performed five repetitions of one of the conditioning exercises. He saw how his students were reminded of why they loved the sport every time they opened their journals, and were able to track their progress and see their improvements. He applied this same attitude to competitions, where Lulla also hoped to change the culture.
“I decided my definition of success would be different from what I was taught. Whenever I would take my teams to competitions, if they didn’t win, they didn’t feel successful. But for me, there was no reason to be disappointed; what mattered to me as a coach was that everyone did their personal best.”
This positive association began to really benefit Lulla and his students, and he knew he had found the winning formula to getting kids to love gymnastics.
He continued to develop his system while attending CSUN classes, and his dramatic new approach to coaching was recognized by the staff at CSUN, which led to Lulla being offered an assistant coaching position for the university’s gymnastics team. He gladly accepted, even though it meant he would not be able to compete. But he knew that his passion and future were in teaching.
Shortly after he graduated from CSUN in 1976, Lulla traveled to Maui to coach a team for six months, and he then completed a cross-country road trip to Montreal to watch the 1976 Olympics. After various coaching jobs around the San Fernando Valley, Lulla decided to branch out and make a name for himself.
In 1985, he opened the first Fun & Fit Gymnastics Center in Burbank. The success of this gym led him to open a second facility in Santa Clarita in 1987. In 2007, he and his wife Vanessa acquired Imagymnation Gymnastics in Simi Valley, which they sold in 2011.
In 1991, Lulla licensed the self-esteem building curriculum he had developed at CSUN; Today, the program has been used by hundreds of gymnastic schools and fitness clubs. In 2012, Lulla partnered with New Zealand-based company Smart Moves to develop a digital medium that he could use to share the program across the world.
Even though Lulla manages multiple business ventures, and was recognized as “Business Leader of the Year” by USA Gymnastics in 2006, he still takes the time to be part of the CSUN community. He has previously spoken to students as part of the Professor for a Day program, drawing from his experience as a business owner and his career as a coach. Lulla said it was an extremely rewarding experience, and felt honored to be part of an educational experience for CSUN students.
“I value education, and I love to learn. The day after I signed the lease to my first gym, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I said, ‘Jeff, you can never stop learning. If you want to have an enhanced or rewarding life, you need to keep growing.’ So I made a promise to myself that I would never stop learning, and I took any opportunity to grow. To be part of something like Professor for a Day and have CSUN students value what I have to say, it’s a very rewarding experience for me.”