Every meet, when a UCLA gymnast toes the line before sprinting down the vault runway, P.J. Irvin is the first one to start clapping his hands in encouragement. Seconds later, he quickly pushes the springboard back into position, adjusts a mat and continues his energetic shouting.
Although yelling may be his preferred method of motivation, Irvin is much more than the Bruins’ personal cheerleader. He is the team’s volunteer assistant coach, a role that the former UCLA offensive lineman has embraced wholeheartedly.
As he moves around the gymnasium during team practices, giving out small pieces of advice to anyone who asks, Irvin seems to fit naturally into this world of high-flying tumbling. But this was not always the case.
Irvin caught his first glimpse of gymnastics during his years as a student athlete. Good friends with many gymnasts, he would attend competitions along with his football teammates.
“That’s why I started to come, to support the girls,” Irvin said. “Then it turned into just enjoying watching them flip in the air because I’m a big guy. I can’t do any of that stuff. It’s like they are levitating.”
Compared to the familiarity of football, gymnastics was exotic. It emphasized the exact opposite of what he had always been taught.
“A football player is trained to eat and lift a bunch of weights, but for gymnasts it is completely different,” Irvin said. “They have to eat healthy and not put on a ton of muscle, just train their bodies. Just looking at how they are able to get their bodies to do the amazing things they do is so interesting to me.”
A simple fascination with the sport transformed itself into a serious hobby when coach Valorie Kondos Field suggested that the former Bruin athlete become a volunteer assistant coach. She noticed that Irvin was talented at spotting mistakes by gymnasts but, more importantly, Kondos Field also realized that he had the rare ability to liven up the team atmosphere.
“He can see things well,” Kondos Field said. “He can see shoulder angles on the vault and hip angles that shouldn’t be there. And he is a great coach because he figures out how to relate to the girls individually and what they each need to stay motivated.”
By bringing a football mentality to the reserved sport of gymnastics, Irvin’s hybrid brand of coaching has a unique twist to it that has quickly become invaluable to the team.
“I just yell a lot,” said the 6-foot-5-inch Irvin, who weighed 308 pounds in his playing days. “It is not yelling in a mean way but just making noise because you are hyper and excited. I am not a technical coach, just a passionate guy who can bring the fire.”
While football and gymnastics are physical opposites, Irvin recognizes the identical mentality behind both sports, which allows him to relate his own experiences as an offensive lineman to the gymnasts he coaches.
“It is the same thing as being able to remember your play when you have a hundred thousand fans yelling at you,” he said. “That is the same as a single person going down a runway and doing a vault.
There is still a ton of pressure. And that is sports in general, the competitiveness is the same.”
Being able to energize the team has become Irvin’s trademark, and his most valuable contribution to the team.
“The first word that comes to mind is “˜enthusiastic,’” junior Kaelie Baer said. “He comes in here every day just pumping us up.
If we have a down day, he will be screaming and yelling just to get us going.”
“He brings a lot of fun to the sport”, freshman Olivia Courtney added. “I have never had a coach like this before, but he knows what type of support you need. He knows everybody really well and what they need individually.”
With three years of experience as a volunteer assistant coach under his belt, Irvin’s technical knowledge of gymnastics has vastly improved. However, he still does not consider himself an expert in the sport and his coaching perspective reflects this.
“He sees how the gymnastics looks rather than from a technical aspect,” senior Mizuki Sato said. “From a gymnast’s point of view, that is sometimes better because it is simpler. When you are getting bombarded with corrections, you need simple instead of technical.”
In a sport long associated with quiet suffering, where athletes are expected to keep their mouths shut through endless repetitions, the messy loudness of football can seem jarring.
But for Kondos Field, Irvin is exactly the type of person the team needs to remind themselves that collegiate gymnastics is supposed to be fun.
“Gymnasts are always trying to reach perfection and so sometimes when you are trying to be too perfect, you can’t just allow yourself to play,” she said. “He brings that sense of sport and how to go hard because it’s a game.”