Support staff are the unsung heroes of the PBA Bubble

When the PBA Bubble started, teams went from three games in two weeks to as many as three games in a single week. And with the new schedules in place, teams are even playing games on back-to-back days. Now more than ever, the support staff play a key role in the fortunes of a PBA team.

Strength & Conditioning Coaches and Physical Therapists work hand in hand to prepare the athletes’ bodies for battle and then help them recover. What does this look like in the bubble?

“It’s the assurance that someone’s taking care of you”

“You’re not just treating their injury, you’re treating the whole person,” says Meralco Bolts’ PT Benj Palarca, who has been working in the PBA for 21 years. He began his career with the Purefoods franchise in 1998 before joining the Bolts in 2011, a year after the team was formed.

“The job of a PT isn’t just to assess the athlete’s condition, but also to reassure them,” he says. “Some people are quick to respond to treatment, some need more time. It’s the assurance that someone’s taking care of you.”

To do just that, many PTs’ hotel rooms in the bubble have been adapted into a treatment room—with the bed pushed to one side to make room for the treatment table and other rehab equipment. Palarca’s doors open from 9:00am all the way until 10:00 or 11:00pm. Days are full, but he embraces the challenge.

Despite being a veteran in the PBA, Palarca says the profession is ever-evolving. One of the big changes in the PBA he’s seen are the kinds of modalities used. Everyone knows hot packs and ultrasound therapy devices, but there’s also new technology on the market. For the PBA bubble, the Bolts brought additional equipment like the LightForce Class IV Therapeutic Laser to speed up the body’s healing response.

“There’s also been a resurgence of traditional techniques,” he shares. PBA players across different teams use Ventosa or cupping therapy, following the example of Olympians like Michael Phelps; Palarca also uses gua sha, a kind of scraping massage, on the Bolts.

“In our type of work, iba-iba ang athletes. Different people respond to different things. It’s never one-size-fits-all, it always has to be individualized,” he shares.

Seeing your players succeed

Personalized care is also key to the work of Diego Lozano, who has been the Bolts’ strength and conditioning coach since 2017, and has been training athletes from different PBA teams for almost a decade.

“You get to know each player’s preferences. For example, we have players like Pops [Reynel Hugnatan], AB [Aaron Black], and Toto [Jose], who like to have a session on game day,” Lozano explains.

You can’t approach the bubble the same way you would a regular conference. “With the games back to back, something we’ve done after the first day [of consecutive games] is go straight to the pool and have longer stretching sessions to help with recovery,” he says.

They’ve also converted one hotel room into an additional training room, an idea he got from watching NBA players’ bubble vlogs. “Some players prefer the room more than the gym because we get to talk about the game,” he says.

“It’s a different kind of coaching. With the tactical coaches, the players are like soldiers there to get the job done. Because of the different dynamic with strength coaches, you become like brothers,” Lozano shares.

“I’ve tried to not just tell them what to do but to educate them on the importance of what we do. I didn’t want to enforce anything, but I opened the idea of working out after a game. They’re still high on that adrenaline, so it’s better instead of doing it the morning after when their bodies feel beat up,” he says. “What’s great about the guys is they show up. The gym was full!”

Building relationships with the athletes is his favorite part of the job—a job built on a lifelong passion for sport: “As a kid, I wanted to be a pro athlete. I guess I fell into this because I couldn’t reach that level. But how else can I apply that dream? Seeing my players succeed.”

A greater appreciation for support staff

It’s no secret that the support staff still remain underrated in the Philippines. In some places, you could be hired with the expectation of simply continuing practices from a decade ago; introducing new ideas can be met with the resistance of “this is how it’s always been done.”

Fighting stagnation starts with yourself. “You have to be up to date. Some of the things you learned in school are no longer applicable, so you have to be open to change,” shares Palarca. At the same time, a collaborative environment will empower more support staff in the PBA to take the industry further.

“The Philippines is not the best place yet [for our profession],” Lozano acknowledges. “When I was considering working in the PBA, I was worried about selling it to the old heads. If I chose the wrong team, I would have to give in some of my principles in coaching. But from the first meeting with Coach Norman Black and [team manager] Paolo Trillo, it was clear they respected my expertise and would be open to my suggestions. There’s a give-and-take. That’s what sold me and it’s only gotten better over time.”

“We’re behind but I don’t think we’re heading in the wrong direction. It’s nice to see the community coming together, and strength coaches knowing and helping each other,” he says. With strength in numbers, it’s only a matter of time before the industry realizes the value of their support staff. “It’s only going to get better from here.”