April 02, 2023

HER SIDE OF THE COURT | Coach Mau Belen is the first female PBA coach, but she should not be the last

HER SIDE OF THE COURT | Coach Mau Belen is the first female PBA coach, but she should not be the last
Photo Courtesy: Nike

Coach Mau Belen is an outlier in the PBA, and she knows it. You know it. Everyone knows it. A female PBA coach was previously unheard of, and here she is, an assistant coach at TNT Tropang Giga, the head coach of TNT’s 3x3 team, and a champion in both tournaments.

There are so few of us women working in the PBA — she as a coach, myself as a communications manager for the Meralco Bolts. So whenever we see each other at games, we always have a chat, even if our teams are up against each other. One of the things we always talk about: we may have been the first women through the door, but we can’t be the last. We’re never done encouraging and training more women to join our ranks.

But how do we make that possible?

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation on my podcast “Go Hard Girls,” recorded at a panel discussion that included fellow leading women in basketball like “The One-Armed Mamba” Kat Tan and Girls Got Game managing director Mariana Lopa.

“Nakakahiya man aminin, but most of the female mentors that I have are from other countries,” Belen says. Though she knows there are other women coaches in the Philippines, there are so few of them, and even fewer opportunities for them to connect with each other, that she often turns to social media to connect and consult with foreign female coaches.

One obstacle in the pipeline for Filipina coaches is the nature of the hiring process for basketball jobs in the Philippines.“

Ito yung mga type ng trabaho na ‘di pinopost sa LinkedIn, ‘di pinopost sa whatever job site na meron tayo, right?” she says. “Maririnig mo na lang: ‘Uy, nawala si ano. Magpapahinga daw muna sa coaching,’ ‘O may kakilala ako, yung barkada ko,’ ‘Uy kumpare ko, tagal nang walang ginagawa, nasa bahay lang, baka puwedeng assistant coach.’

The usual career trajectory of a coach starts at the amateur level like with a high school team, then the UAAP or NCAA, then the PBA. These ranks are harder for women to enter because predominantly male coaches often “discover” and recruit future coaches from their own network of assistants and former players. So how can female coaches get their name out there and be considered for these jobs?

Belen says that a transparent and systematized hiring process can help: “I saw the Basketball Australia website and they have Careers there, and you can apply in like the littlest school that they have as an assistant coach for their basketball program. They have that kind of machinery. Puwedeng gumawa nun dito.”

From where I stand, the lack of women in sports leadership is a challenge from which springs forth further challenges. Our industry often celebrates the one woman who makes it through — the only woman in the room, the first woman to reach a certain position. This is true even in my own career, where I was once the only woman on an editorial staff, the only female contributor to a publication, the only woman sitting at a team’s table during the PBA draft.

Being one of the few women to break through is worth celebrating, because certainly, it isn’t easy to do so. But if our industry stops there, it turns women into tokens, as if to tell us, “there’s already one of you there, what more do you want?”

So the questions must always look ahead. How do we build towards a gender-balanced workplace in professional basketball? When will we see women on the coaching staff of the men’s national team? How do we break down social stereotypes and biases that make leadership hesitate hiring women?

There isn’t an easy answer. But Belen says that the men who hold positions of power can make meaningful change by being allies. “We need male leaders to give opportunities…just like what Coach Chot did to me [at TNT]. Just took a chance. He took a chance, and I hear that guy say, ‘If she fails, I fail,’ – that kind of leader,” Belen says.

Belen, like many women hoping to follow in her footsteps, continues to hope. “Hopefully, maka-bingo tayo noh? Haha. First female coach in the NCAA. First female coach in UAAP Men's Basketball. I would love to see more [young women] be there as well,” she says.