Tots Carlos The GAME Feature 2024

From Ms. Happy-Go-Lucky to Ms. Volleyball: Tots Carlos Has Come a Long Way

Tots Carlos tells The GAME about how she grew from simply taking things as they came into her life, to taking charge of her path herself.

Every time someone asks Diana Mae Carlos — better known as Tots — what her job would have been if she hadn’t become a professional volleyball player, she reveals to The GAME that she always responds by saying, “Hindi puede na hindi ako volleyball player.” Hearing this doesn’t come as a surprise because as far as Philippine volleyball goes, she is one of the best players of her generation, if not of all time.

At just 25 years old, Carlos has already surpassed many of her seniors in the sport. In the Premier Volleyball League, she has already become a four-time Conference Champion, a three-time Conference Most Valuable Player, a four-time Best Opposite Spiker, and is the most recent Finals Most Valuable Player as of this writing. But perhaps most impressively, she was named “Ms. Volleyball” — an award given to the best volleyball player of the year — at the last Philippine Sportswriters Association Awards Night.

With all this, it’s easy to agree with her sentiment; it seems there was no other path for her other than volleyball.

But, she admitted that there was once a point in her life where she was playing volleyball just so she could make it through her studies instead of the other way around.

Practical beginnings

When The GAME asked Tots Carlos how she started playing volleyball, her response came as a surprise. “When I was in grade three to five, I was playing badminton,” she recalls. “But my brother— who’s also from UP and was the setter of the men’s volleyball team at the time — he forced me to change sports. He showed me some skills and I thought, Oh I want to do that too. So he told me, ‘Okay, you have to change sports.'”

Carlos grew up in a very sporty family. Her house always had different sports equipment, from basketballs to volleyballs and even badminton equipment. But it was only when she was in the sixth grade that she would take after her brother and start playing volleyball.

She recalled that when she was still a kid, she didn’t think to ask her brother why he felt that she should switch sports. She simply went along like most little sisters who look up to their kuyas. It was only when she was older that she had to pause and think to herself, Why did I switch to volleyball, anyway?

Her brother had a practical answer for her. “Noong tumanda ako, I asked him kung bakit niya ako pinapalit ng volleyball. He said, ‘Mas maraming opportunity sa team sports.’ Unlike in badminton, if mag-isa ka, you have to be best of the best. Sa volleyball kasi, it’s a team sport, so maraming players involved and mas maraming opportunity.

“Also, it was volleyball na nagpaaral sa akin. Same with my brother — volleyball yung nagpaaral sa kanya ng high school and college. So yun yung naging main reason.”

With this, she admits, “Dati, hindi ako nag-aaral para makapaglaro…Naglalaro ako para makapagaral ako. So yun yung focus namin during that time.”

But, even though her decision to play volleyball started as a practical choice — something that would help her get through her studies — it slowly started to grow on her in a way she did not expect. By nature, Carlos sees herself as a very competitive person. As she says, “Ayaw ko magpatalo, bidang bida ako, so I think that’s why nag-excel din ako.”

True enough, she did excel. She already became a standout player when she was in high school and was recruited by many UAAP schools, but ultimately, she chose the University of the Philippines, where she would become a two-time Founders’ Cup Philippines champion and a PSL Collegiate Grand Slam Conference Champion.

On top of this, she also felt inspired by the players who came before her. “Sila Alyssa Valdez, Jia Morado — my teammates now na talagang nagpa-boom ng volleyball. I was inspired and I learned to love what I do.”

With this newfound love for being an athlete, she then made a choice. She decided to learn as much as possible to become the best player she could be.

Chasing ambition

Even while she was a student at UP, Tots Carlos already started to branch out and gain as much experience as she possibly could by competing for other clubs. She played for the Perlas Spikers, the Foton Tornadoes, and the Motolite Power Builders. This is where the foundations of her game started to take shape.

“For me, naging malaking opportunity ‘to para mas matuto pa ako, kasi yung mga kalaro ko, veterans na,” she recalls. “Nagkakaroon kami ng chance na maglaro so lahat na kaya kong makuha na learning, kinukuha ko talaga.

And it wasn’t difficult to see that she was, in fact, learning. In 2018, for instance, even after coming back from a shin injury, she was named the First Best Outside Spiker and the Most Valuable Player in the PSL Collegiate Grand Slam Conference. But even with her success as a college player, it was only after her collegiate run with Motolite that she started thinking about her career path.

“After ko mag-college with Motolite, doon ko na inisip yung long-term goals ko. So noong year na yun, Motolite was a new team also consisting of UP volleyball players and UP coaching staff, so I chose Motolite.”

Off the bat, Motolite seemed to be a good fit for Carlos. In 2019, she was one of the instrumental players who led the team to the semifinals of the PVL Open Conference as the league’s second-highest scorer. On top of this, she was also named Best Opposite Hitter.

From then on, she became a player to watch for. Thus, it came as no surprise that in 2021, she was picked up by the PVL cult favorite, the Creamline Cool Smashers, a team that would prove to be an even better fit for her.

Yung first year ko, parang matagal na ako naglalaro with the team,” she says, reflecting on her first year with the Cool Smashers.

“I really love the environment because they will really push you to be better every day, every training. One of the experiences na core memory ko is with MJ Gumabao. Si Ate MJ kasi, same position kami, so there’s still competitiveness on the team, but also, lahat ng alam ni Ate MJ, sinasabi niya din sa akin. Ang dami ko talagang natutunan, not just from the coaches, but also from the players, so sobrang natuwa ako sa environment, and feeling ko hindi ako bago sa team.”

As the 25-year-old mentioned, she is very competitive by nature, making this kind of team culture a perfect fit for someone like her. But apart from all the players’ desire to strive to become better and better day by day, the team’s chemistry is another one of their biggest assets.

“I think malaking bagay yun, yung chemistry. Pag-dating sa court, comfortable ka, kinakabahan ka pero at the same time, confident ka kasi you know your teammates will support you, your coaches will support you, and we know our roles on the team, so alam namin yung mga gagawin namin and if ever magkakamali ka, it’s okay as long as you make bawi.”

Competitiveness, support, and chemistry — these three ingredients have allowed the Creamline Cool Smashers to dominate the league. Since 2021, they have won four titles as of writing, and have only missed out on the finals once in seven conferences. And, in the ongoing 2024 All-Filipino Conference, they are currently at the top of the table and are poised to win yet another.

They’re not just a team to beat. They are the Philippine volleyball scene’s dynasty, and when a team starts to build a dynasty, they also start to build bigger expectations.

Becoming Ms. Volleyball

“Super proud ako sa team,” Tots Carlos shares with a big smile on her face, reflecting on all her team’s successes in the last several years. “Ang dami naming na-experience na talagang sobrang hirap. As in, dumaan talaga kami sa butas ng karayom...But if you’re on a champion team, the pressure will always be there because we have a lot of fans who really support us.”

Looking back at how the pressure and expectations on her team have grown over the years, Carlos can also see, in hindsight, how this helped her grow as an individual as well.

“Laging kong sinasabi na the day na nag-transfer ako sa Creamline, sobrang dami kong natutunan and feel ko nag-grow ako talaga dahil sa team. Ako lang yung tipong na happy-go-lucky lang, kung anong mangyari, eh di go,” she admits.

“But, natutunan ko lang sa Creamline na maging mas-responsible with my actions, with my intentions, especially during games and during training. Yun yung nakita ko na pinagbago ko talaga. I really have to do my best and I have to be intentional with my decisions inside the court and in training.”

“Intention” is the word Carlos hangs onto and emphasizes. From being a little sister who simply followed the footsteps of her older brother because she was told to, she learned how to take control of every little decision she would make, thinking about how this might affect her career.

Well, whatever her decision-making process was like, this side of her personal development definitely seems to have worked in her favor, as she is truly thriving.

Last year, Carlos won four individual titles on top of two PVL titles — the All-Filipino Conference MVP Award, the All-Filipino First Best Outside Spiker, the Invitational Conference Best Opposite Spiker, and the Second All-Filipino Conference Finals MVP Award.

With all this success, there was no disputing that she was, indeed, the best player of the year, and this was only further solidified when she was named Ms. Volleyball in the most recent PSA Awards Night.

The weight of this recognition was apparent as Carlos had to take a long pause before she could explain what receiving it meant to her.

“I’m super happy na people really gave me recognition,” she said after a moment of reflection. “Syempre when you’re doing your work, ikaw talaga yung mas tutok sa progress mo, so you really monitor yourself. So it really feels good na na-recognize ng ibang tao yung hard work na ginagawa ko everyday, yung improvement na nangyayari every season.”

This recognition has confirmed the sentiments of the many PVL fans around the country, that Tots Carlos is a standout player, even in a highly competitive field, and even in a squad with other big names.

But even more than this, Carlos has now become one of the players in the league that many aspiring volleyball players can look up to. No longer is she the follower — she is forging a path that proves to so many other young dreamers that it is possible to succeed.

“When anyone asks me [what it’s like to be a role model], I always put myself in that situation. What if five years old ako na gusto kong maging parang Tots Carlos?

“Personally, ang dami kong naging struggles sa buhay ko. Hindi kami financially stable noong bata ako, yung support na nakukuha ko from family hindi ganun kalaki when I was young, so parang ang lumalabas lagi sa isip ko na, always do whatever makes you happy. If volleyball makes you happy, there are a lot of ways to improve yourself…So if you want one thing in life, just never give up and make sure it will really make you happy.”

Photography KIERAN PUNAY of KLIQ, Inc.
Creative Direction MARC YELLOW
Sittings Editor SID VENTURA
Shoot Coordination ANTHONY MENDOZA

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