Physical Therapy PT

| 15 December 2023

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Unwavering Perseverance and a Commitment to Service: USAHS Alum Becomes First Filipino-American Physical Therapist in the NBA

USAHS Erwin Benedict Valencia

Erwin Benedict Valencia, USAHS Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) ‘11, says it’s a familiar story: A Filipino son is expected to become a doctor or engineer. However, Dr. Valencia’s career path is anything but ordinary.

His great-uncle was a cardiologist in Lodi, New Jersey. He provided care to Lodi locals and served the community without asking for much in return. Dr. Valencia’s father and mother idolized the great-uncle – he was successful and helped the people. The community appreciated him so much that they lobbied for him to receive a U.S. visa and green card.

Dr. Valencia comes from a family of service-minded individuals. His great-uncle motivated him to pursue a life devoted to helping others. “I believe we are teachers, guides and mentors to those we serve,” said Dr. Valencia.

He fulfills his purpose as an author, international speaker and high-performance coach. A self-proclaimed polymath, gratitude scientist and change-maker, Dr. Valencia is inspired by his past and always looking to the future.

He worked in sports for almost two decades – eight years in baseball and nine years in basketball. For nine seasons, he played a pivotal role in the National Basketball Association (NBA) as a part of the New York Knicks medical staff. For three years, he was Director of Training and Conditioning under legendary coach and former Knicks Team President Phil Jackson. Most recently, he served as Team Physical Therapist and Wellness Lead for the Knicks.

It all started with a spark

“I dreamt of being the first Filipino-American to work on an NBA court daily. My vision was so clear that I knew it was bound to happen,” he said.

He knew he wanted to be around people and create positive rapport. But how would he achieve this goal? At age 17, he watched the San Francisco 49ers play in the Super Bowl and saw an ad for a sports medicine role in a hospital system. His curiosity was piqued. He continued to build his career vision as he admired athletic trainers – “the guys wearing suits on the basketball court,” he said.

Dr. Valencia considered: What strengths do I have? He discovered his ability to nurture, connect with and care for people and found a way to pursue his passion.

An education to expand your career

Dr. Valencia earned a Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy from the University of the Philippines in Manila.

Eventually, he was at a crossroads and felt like he was missing a piece of his education. “I realized that if DPT 2020 was going to happen, I needed to get ahead of the curve.” He was a part of one of the initial DPT cohorts at USAHS.

I appreciate USAHS’ innovation and the level of knowledge that I gained.

“The DPT program taught me practical skills and provided a scientific background for manual therapy,” he said.

Dr. Valencia’s education and persistence fueled his future in physical therapy. He brings a holistic approach to care and combines clinical expertise with mindfulness.

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A force for physical therapy innovation

Dr. Valencia was the first Filipino, raised and educated in the Philippines, to be hired as a part of the full-time medical/performance staff of any of the four major U.S. sports leagues, the NBA, Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL).

His first break in professional sports came when he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates MLB team as a resident advisor and rehabilitation director. He learned how to work with professional athletes and developed therapeutic methods to prepare them for the next level.

In 2013, he co-founded a global education company, KinetIQ, to mentor physical therapists and other healthcare professionals and make training more accessible. Around the same time, he started the Grasshopper Project, a mentorship program for future movement thought leaders.

He followed a social enterprise business model. If he organized an event in the U.S., he hosted a free experience in a developing country. On his 36th birthday, in lieu of a big party, he offered hugs to over 300 random people in Prague, Czech Republic, along with his local friends.

Dr. Valencia was named one of the 100 Most Influential Filipino Americans in 2020 by The Outstanding Filipinos in America (TOFA) Awards.

He will also receive the Oblation Award from the University of the Philippines Alumni Association (UPAA). The honor is named for the iconic UP symbol and recognizes distinguished alumni for their careers. Dr. Valencia, his father and his grandfather will accept a multi-generational award from UPAA. The accolade is for families with three generations of UP graduates whose careers have been in service of Filipinos and fellow scholars.

In October, Dr. Valencia will be named Asia’s Most Outstanding Physical Therapist by Asia’s Pinnacle/Golden Icon Awards. He will be honored as an inspirational professional demonstrating exceptional commitment to work for society.

When a vision becomes a reality

The twists and turns of his career have taught him a great deal. “I’ve learned that I don’t need over 20 certifications to gain respect and validation. It was important to discover five things I am good at.”

Physical therapists need soft tissue, joint manipulation and movement therapy techniques. They also need an indirect method – like dry needling or positional release therapy (PRT). Then, they need to have a wild card or something that no one else is interested in to demonstrate expertise. “For me, it’s gratitude and mindfulness. I’ve become a life coach and a clinician to my clients,” he said.

USAHS Erwin Benedict Valencia

Erwin Benedict Valencia with Niko Rodriguez

Dr. Valencia carved out his role as Wellness Lead for the Knicks organization. In the 2015-2016 season, he launched the NBA’s first-ever in-season daily breathwork, intention setting and meditation program. He also used the meditation app Headspace as a recovery strategy in the team’s integrated practice.

“It was so incredible; we did the mindfulness program daily with different topics and intentions. We got as many players, coaches and administration involved as possible,” Dr. Valencia said.

He credits his supportive colleagues and partner organizations for allowing him to be himself and integrate innovative methods into the practice.

Following in his footsteps

Dr. Valencia warns aspiring PTs to avoid fast-tracking. “Don’t be afraid to work and put in the 10,000 hours.”

He said the investment will pay off when “a game is on the line” – if an athlete hurts their ankle or knee and you can make an instant judgment call, not because of the books you read, but because of your real-world experience.

He said PT is about sowing the foundation. “Our role is to plant the seed. We’re not responsible for making the seeds grow. Whether you’re working with a student or an athlete, our responsibility is to provide those that we serve with tools to create their success.”

Leaving the Knicks, the NBA and New York City

Dr. Valencia has resigned from his position with the Knicks as of the 2023-2024 season. For two decades, he dedicated his life to the sport and the service of others.

Dr. Valencia explained the reason for taking a step back: “If I am going to serve as a champion to those who are struggling to find balance, trying their best not to burn out and to believe that it’s possible to thrive, I need to be an example of self-care.”

He drafted a gratitude letter to his team, the league and the city. “I fulfilled my dream and that of millions of Filipino kids whose hope it was to have a chance to work at the highest level of the sport we all love, all while in the greatest city on earth,” he wrote.

What’s next for the multi-hyphenate advocate of health and well-being? Dr. Valencia will return to the Philippines for a six-month to one-year sabbatical. He plans to find space for solitude – to rest, recover and write.

“As I reflect on my blessings and experiences, I hope to inspire a new generation of physical therapists and others.”

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