The compact schedule of the PBA Bubble has been the biggest challenge for the players, especially coming from almost seven months of being away from the basketball court.
Even though most were working out at home either alone or together with their teams via Zoom, being in shape is still very different from being in game shape. The 12 PBA teams hit the ground running last October 11 and the games have mostly been intense and competitive from the start with the level going up as more and more get into their usual condition.
A lot of this success can be pinned on a handful of physical therapists and trainers inside the PBA Bubble. These unsung heroes have had an indelible effect on the quality of the games and the performance of the athletes.
Dex Aseron of the TNT Tropang Giga and Arcee Cua of the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok are two of the individuals working around the clock to ensure that athletes are all in great condition here in Clark.
Aseron may be the most experienced in this kind of situation due to his multiple stints with Gilas Pilipinas, but even he admits that it was a huge challenge from the start.
"It was very challenging, especially during our first practices here," said Aseron. "We only got to practice together maybe one month before the PBA Bubble. All the things we wanted to accomplish in terms of strength and conditioning became a lot more difficult because of the limitations of the lockdown and keeping the practices limited to only a handful of people per session."
After the IATF allowed PBA teams to resume training, they limited the number of players who can show up in the teams' facilities at any given time. Instead of being able to training the entire team for an extended period of time, PBA trainers had to shorten their programs and repeat these throughout the day as different groups of players show up.
"It's very difficult to find the right balance. We pushed the players at the start of the practices because we only had limited time to get them into shape before the games started. Finding the balance between pushing them and while making sure they won't be injured is the key," explained Aseron.
"We just needed the players to be completely open to us. We ask them how they feel. If they're hurt, we give them a break or we'll give them extra attention in strengthening the body part. We adjusted by making sure our drills are still intense but shorter because intense training for longer periods of time at this stage might cause more harm than good. But what's really important here is recovery."
Cua agreed with Aseron, saying that their team of physiotherapists and strength and conditioning trainers had to be extra creative in coming up with programs to deal with the current situation.
"All our players were able to work out on their own during the lockdown but not all of them had complete equipment, so we also had to take that into consideration," said Cua.
For both Aseron and Cua, their job is to prepare their players physically to minimize the risk of injuries but they know that it's something they could not completely control.
"It was frustrating to see injuries but it's a part of basketball. All the teams here will have to deal with it. As a trainer, it's our job to strengthen our players so they can avoid injuries, but we can't control everything. Injuries still happen to the best-conditioned athletes," Aseron said.
During TNT's first game, Ray Parks, Jr. was not able to play because of a calf strain, David Semerad rolled his ankle, and Kib Montalbo injured his plantar fascia. So Aseron had to work extra hours to deal with all these issues right off the gate.
Magnolia was not spared from injuries as well with Kyle Pascual having a hamstring issue, Ian Sangalang battling pain in his back, and Rome Dela Rosa nursing an injured knee.
"The limits when it comes to being in the gym make our job a little more difficult," Cua admitted. "We only have an hour for both the pool and the gym. So if we choose to use the pool for aqua training, it means those players can't use the gym anymore to strengthen other parts of their bodies."
Another challenge is that the teams don't have the freedom to have their players undergo testing or to see specialists who could give them a better idea how to treat their injuries.
"It's a little more difficult because you can't just go to the hospital for an MRI or see a back specialist for Ian, for example," Cua said. "But we understand that this is to protect the PBA Bubble so we're just doing our best to manage."
Ask any of the players in the PBA Bubble and they'd tell you that the real MVPs of the teams are the PTs and trainers who take care of them. In the past, they only had to work during practices and games. After helping their guys ice and stretch, their job is done.
The situation is much different here as they are pretty much on call 24-7.
"It's part of the job," said Cua. "Sometimes when we think we're about to get some rest, we'd hear the doorbell and it'll be one of our guys needing treatment. Like for Ian, when he feels his back tightening up, we need to work on it immediately or else it's going to get worse. Everyone's sacrificing here in bubble so if taking care of our players means less rest for us, then that's not a problem."
"Our work doesn't end after the games," said Aseron. "When we get back to the hotel, we still need to take care of our players. If they need stretching or medicine or extra food, we need to take note of all the needs of our players just to make sure they'll be ready to go again the day after. It's very challenging. It's like what we do for Gilas Pilipinas when we're abroad but for a longer period of time. The schedule is grueling so it makes it more important for us to do our best so our players can also give their best."