Rachel Balkovec First Female Hitting Coach

Rachel Balkovec
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Kelly: [0:03:27] On this episode of The Ready State Podcast, we are thrilled to reintroduce you to Rachel Balkovec. Just so you know, Rachel’s a close member of the family and a pretty extraordinary woman. She’s actually serving her second year as a minor league hitting coach with the New York Yankees. She’s the first woman, alongside Rachel Folden of the Cubs, to hold that title in the history of professional baseball. She’s also one of four women entirely that are working in the uniform in 2021. She joined the Yankees in 2019 after completing her second master’s degree in biomechanics, which we talk about, where she served as an apprentice hitting coach for the National Softball Team and baseball programs there. She also completed her research for this degree in eye tracking at Driveline Baseball. And I actually talk with her a lot about how to get Caroline to be a better goalie. It’s very interesting. It’s nice to have savage friends.

Previous to crossing over to be a hitting coach, she spent seven seasons in professional baseball as a strength and conditioning coach and various roles for the Astros and the Cardinals. In addition to her most groundbreaking role with the Yankees, she was also the first woman to be hired full time as a strength and conditioning coach in major league baseball. She’s sort of like one of my friends who’s also Amelia Earhart. Smashing windows.

One of the things that I think is particularly of note is that she has a special interest in organizational culture and behavioral psychology as it relates to performance and organizations. And I’ll call it here, she will be a general manager one day. Please enjoy our interview with Rachel. I know you will. 

Juliet: [0:04:50] Rachel, welcome to The Ready State Podcast.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:04:52] Guys, thank you for having me.

Kelly: [0:04:53] You are bringing… You’re talking to us from Santa Barbara. So where are you right now?

Juliet: [0:05:00] And why are you there?

Kelly: [0:05:00] And why are you there?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:05:02] Well, I’m in Santa Barbara, California. It’s the baseball off season so I am going into my sabbatical season, if you will, where I get a little bit of downtime and get to work remotely and get some time to reflect on the season, I would say.

Kelly: [0:05:16] The word sabbaticals. Everyone’s transparent here. I consider you like a sister. Your sabbaticals are sort of legendary in our circle of friends, but certainly very anomalous in the greater sort of strength and conditioning and professional coaching community. Can you just talk for a second, when you mean sabbatical, and give us some examples of seasons past, because I think it really sets the framework for where you’re going and what you’re doing.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:05:44] Yeah. So literally I’m writing a book that I think is going to be called Seasons and Sabbaticals, and it’s basically about the general scope of my life, which is baseball seasons, which means I work like a maniac for eight to nine months and then I have this beautiful off season where I can really take time and space, and literally sometimes a lot of space, as you guys both know, and traveling the world, and just get some reflection. And I think it’s just the most valuable thing in the world. So for example, for some of the listeners that don’t know me very well, I’ve spent like a month and a half in Southeast Asia. I lived in a village in Laos for three weeks in a wooden structure under a mosquito net. A different time, I moved to Amsterdam to do a second master’s degree. But really reflecting back on that time, it was to give me a break from baseball and to reflect on where I wanted to go. And that ended up in me transitioning from strength and conditioning to hitting coach and making history with the Yankees.

So I guess it’s really just about… My sabbaticals, I used to accidentally stumble upon these great points of reflection. And now I intentionally buy the plane ticket to the country that I’ve never heard of and try to just make myself wildly uncomfortable because I know the amazing reflection points that come from that, the ability to create space. And I don’t just mean space like, okay, I go to yoga once a week and that’s also great, but literally there is no English, I can’t read the alphabet, the letters don’t make sense to me, I have no cell service, I’m by myself. And then the thoughts really start to flow. So that’s what I would say I try to get out of the sabbatical. And I do that pretty intentionally as much as I can. But I have a normal job. Well, I don’t have a normal job, but I have a job that I have to be somewhere for, so that doesn’t happen as often as I would like probably.

Juliet: [0:07:35] Not to get too philosophical, but don’t you think we would all be better off as a human species if we could all take a sabbatical, like if all jobs were set up so that you have this furious period of work and then a sabbatical, right? Because that’s sort of how kids’ schools are set up, especially when you’re in college and you do these periods, finals, but then you have like a month off for Christmas or you’ve got a few months off in the summer you can have a job or go do travel. I don’t know. I just feel like it’s a nice way to live life.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:08:08] Yeah. No, let’s get philosophical because I 100 percent, I couldn’t agree more. And that’s why when I think about writing a book, I mean sure, some things have happened in my life, and I would never write a book about hitting or strength and conditioning. That’s just really not my jam. But I want to write about this concept because there are parts of the world that do it really well and obviously you both know Europeans, right, they take a holiday and they take a holiday. I mean they don’t even look at their email. They’re like “No, sorry, I’ll email you back in six weeks.” And I mean Americans don’t do that and obviously there are other parts of the world and cultures that don’t do that. 

And so I’ve just seen the benefit, as you mentioned, Juliet, of just the stopping. Stop the bleeding, stop the mental carnage and the emotional stress, and let yourself breathe. And the longer, the better. If it’s a year, that’s great. If it’s a week, great. Whatever you can get, get it. But yeah, I 100 percent believe that pretty much 99 percent of the people living in the United States of America could really benefit from this, and we really don’t have it built in to many of our careers.

Juliet: [0:09:11] I’m just going to still go down this rabbit hole here, Rachel, but I think it’s also partly because we are also owning a company and employing people, and I would literally love nothing more than to say in August, “Hey, here’s two weeks, The Ready State’s closed, go do your thing.” But we almost feel like we have no choice there because consumers are expecting to continue to consume 24 hours a day and expect people to be on the other end of an email or a chat request or expecting to get their next day shipping from Amazon, right? And so it really is this big cultural shift that would have to happen to make that possible, which is not just that employers say, “Go do it,” but that consumers say, “Okay, it’s fine if I can’t log into my Ready State account, it’s okay that I wait two weeks because The Ready State staff is taking a much-deserved break.”

Kelly: [0:10:00] Good luck with that.

Juliet: [0:10:01] Right, but you know what I’m saying? So I just think that as an employer I have to put it out there that as an employer I’d love to say, “No one at The Ready State works the month of August.” That would be awesome. I actually wish we could do that. But we can’t there’s no way to do it. it’s not how our economy is set up.

Kelly: [0:10:17] Well, I think what’s interesting, you may be hitting on something else. We’re certainly seeing this, and I would be interested in your thoughts, you’re at the intersection of social media for your own self and development, but you’re also in the middle of this professional athlete social media thing, team stuff. We’re seeing that in coaching, it’s difficult to get across complex ideas in 90 seconds, which is considered long format in Google, 60 seconds is how much you have on Instagram, and now 15 seconds on TikTok, right? How do we make sense of the lack of reflection development time with the fact that people are thinking that they’re getting better but they’re doing it in these micro increments?

Juliet: [0:11:05] Can I add a subtext question to that too? Because you-

Kelly: [0:11:09] Are you starting to swamp my program?

Juliet: [0:11:12] No, I’m not trying to swamp it. I just feel like it’s part of this. It’s in addition to your question, which is when you are going on these, because you are also a brand in and of itself as a coach and a thinker and someone who’s writing awesome books and working with awesome women, which I want to talk about, you’re doing all these things. And so even though you’re taking a sabbatical from your day job, do you feel like you can take a true sabbatical from let’s say keeping up your social media or the other things you’re doing that are sort of Rachel specific? Are you able to do that or is that also not possible? And then whatever Kelly said as well.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:11:45] You guys just asked me like five questions so I’m going to get to-

Kelly: [0:11:49] And I have follow-ups, so get ready.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:11:51] I’m going to combat you on this. I really think that The Ready State and every other company could do this. But it takes teaching your consumers. So you guys are a health company. People go to you to feel better, move better. I’m making this up. I don’t know your exact slogan. But they go to you to move better and move pain free, let’s say. But also, this is a part of health. And I really believe that the consumers that you’re working with would buy into if for some reason you’re like, hey, not everybody at The Ready State’s going to be gone for the month of August, but hey, our, I don’t know, fill in the blank team is taking two weeks off because we think it’s that important for mental health and family, and we hope that you understand that we are about health here and this is how we want to live our… And they might even like you more.

Juliet: [0:12:38] I mean I don’t know. I would love for you to spend a day in our customer service platform. But I hear you. I hear you on that. I hear you. I think there’s probably maybe a way to do it, but I would say that we have… People are demanding.

Kelly: [0:12:52] Let me ask this. Circling back around to this idea of your wandering and journeying-

Juliet: [0:12:58] But I appreciate you for saying that. 

Kelly: [0:13:02] In coaching right now, there’s a real problem of burnout. So one of my good friends just left his dream job, which is the director of performance at a very successful Australian rules football program. Hockey, or rugby, in Australia, for everyone who doesn’t know. and theoretically the dream job, but the demands year-round on the professional coach are insane and these directors of development are insane. And if you go to any college weight room, it’s not a really healthy environment. We see really unhealthy people who have depression and stress and burnout. Do you think your time off, because you’re really intentional about this, do you think this would help this problem, because this is a gigantic problem in the industry, we’re seeing people leave or not be sustainable or actually not be good coaches because they’re so burned out?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:13:55] Yes. I was waiting for you to finish, but I couldn’t wait to scream yes at the top of my lungs. Yes. I mean honestly, and this is three years in the past, I would have talked about this in the moment, but I think I can talk about it a little bit with some compassion, but I was in a pretty dark spot when I moved to Amsterdam. So filling in the listeners, my entire career pretty much has been a rough go. But partly my choice and partly what I’ve chosen to do and being a woman, blah blah blah. But basically, I was burnt out, I was in a tough spot. I definitely felt like I wasn’t respected, et cetera. And thank God I sold all of my possessions and I moved to Amsterdam with three suitcases because I think I would’ve been out of the game if I hadn’t done that. And I slowly felt it probably took two or three months of being out of the profession, and I wasn’t ever truly out, right, I was going to get a master’s degree and I was working with the Netherlands national teams. But I was out of American professional sports.

So it took peeling back layers, two or three months of being out of that to feel happy again just as a person, and then a few more months to be like, okay, I know I can get back into baseball and I can do it even better and I can launch this whole other thing. And if I hadn’t have done that, maybe I’d be selling insurance because I would be like, well, I’m supposed to love my job and I’m supposed to love waking up at 4 in the morning, and I’m supposed to love spending zero time with my family, and by the way, abandoning my own health habits so that I can love working with 18-year-old athletes all day long. That’s a joke. It’s a joke. We need space. 

And again, the answer I think is, yes, I do think our profession… I do mentorships with young women, I was just talking to a girl who’s going to quit the field, she’s going to leave the field. And I really like this young woman. But I told her a year ago, I was like, “You’ve got to leave. You’ve got to get out.” And now she’s like, “I’m going to quit strength and conditioning and be a real estate agent.” And I’m like, “Man, you should have taken a breather. You should have taken a step back before that happened, before you want to divorce your wife and you hate your kids and you’re 30 pounds overweight and you want to leave the field.”

Juliet: [0:16:10] So I’m really fascinated by the work you are doing mentoring women. And that was one amazing example, but could you just tell us a little bit more about that? How did you start doing that? Is it a formal thing or is it an informal thing? Tell us a little bit more about that because I know you do it and think it’s very cool. 

Rachel Balkovec: [0:16:27] Thank you. I love talking to young woman probably like college, mid 20s age. And basically, it started just like anything else. I was getting all these questions and I was very informally answering one off questions. And then I would answer one question, then I’d get five more of the same questions I’ve already answered 10 other times. So I think it’s like anything, where I started out very informal, all for free, and I still do a lot of this for free just answering one off questions. But because I answered the exact same questions a hundred times, I was like, oh okay, I can put this into an online course. And then over COVID, really, I had more free time on my hands like some people had, and I was able to put it into a formal mentorship. 

So the mentorship is really, it’s directed towards career but obviously life lessons baked in just about everywhere. So it’s really about designing the career of your dreams. And as you both know, the career of your dreams isn’t necessarily the job of your dreams. So the job is one piece, but how do you create a foundation for a career that’s sustainable where you’re not going to get burned out or you have an exit strategy where you’re developing over time? I think a lot of people still have this crazy idea in their minds that they’re going to get one job and they’re going to spend 30 years there and they’re going to retire. The company’s going to take care of them and give them a pension. And that’s just not the world we’re living in. So how do you have multiple streams of income, how do you have maybe even a side business, how do you create that foundation for a career that’s a true dream career that supports you over a long period of time and fulfills you? It’s a really difficult task. And I really love talking to specifically young women to help them get where they’re going in that regard. 

Juliet: [0:18:10] I think that’s so cool. One of the things I’ve been talking about with our girls is not what do you want to do when you grow up but what do you want your life to be like, because I think that’s an important question. If you want your life to be yachting in the Mediterranean and flying first class-

Kelly: [0:18:25] Get that money, girl.

Juliet: [0:18:25] You might need to pick a job that will allow your life to be like that, right? And so I think, anyway, I love what you’re saying-

Kelly: [0:18:34] Are you saying our girls want a yacht?

Juliet: [0:18:35] No, I’m just saying what do you want your life to be like? Do you want to spend a lot of time with your kids and have a lot of free time? Then maybe you’re not going to be someone who makes $1 million a year, and that’s a tradeoff that you’re choosing, right? And that’s great. I mean whatever it may be. But it’s like what do you want your life to look like, right? And I love that you’re talking to young women about seeing it differently. 

Kelly: [0:18:59] And I want to just jump in and say I really appreciate you distinguishing creating your dream career, maybe not your dream job because I think people think that the job is going to… I mean I don’t always like my job, and I invented my job, and I work with all my best friends. And sometimes I’m like, ah, this job, the man is keeping me down. And I realize I’m the man. So one of the things I think I want everyone to know about, for example, is that you wrapped the season this year… Lisa just told me I’m fired.

Juliet: [0:19:33] Lisa just fired Kelly.

Kelly: [0:19:34] Can I come back to work for the rest of this? You finished the season this year and then you jumped on an airplane to North Carolina. Can you just talk about that experience for a second, because I think people think development and personal growth is a passive experience, and even sabbatical is like, oh, I just take off time and then all of a sudden, I can become a better, more integrated person. It’s very much a verb. Can you talk about as an example what you just did in North Carolina on your own dollar?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:20:01] Yeah, develop, right. So we got all the way back to your question, Kelly, about coaches who are learning in seven seconds. Yeah, the sabbaticals are not vacations. And I rarely find myself sitting on a beach somewhere sipping a margarita. I just made that up. I’ve never actually done that. My sabbaticals are intentional. And it’s hard for me when I think about growth, by the way, certifications are really important, reading books and getting formal education in the way that we know it is important, but also, I just think of education as this really fluid thing where I do really think that spending three weeks in the village in Laos and teaching English to kids and living in that really uncomfortable situation for me literally benefits me just as much as a coach as a certification. I really believe that. 

So what I just did, I flew to North Carolina to visit UNC Women’s Soccer Team and Anson Dorrance, who is a famous coach. Actually, probably a little under the radar, but he should be more famous, I should say. He’s the head coach of probably, what, the longest running dynasty in all of sports?

Kelly: [0:21:05] Just had 900 wins.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:21:06] Nine hundred. I mean it’s actually mind blowing the level of success he’s had. And if you say Anson Dorrance, not that many people know about him. But it’s women’s sports, it’s women’s soccer. I don’t really know the exact reason. But anyway, so obviously I want to learn from somebody who has not only built up UNC women’s soccer and kept it there for 30 years but also, he built up women’s soccer internationally in the United States from the ground up, which not many people know. Obviously, you two know. But we wouldn’t have the 99ers if it wasn’t for Anson Dorrance. And we may not even have what we have today with the US Women’s Soccer Team. So phenomenal person, phenomenal coach. And I didn’t get a certificate. I don’t know. I didn’t get certified in UNC Women’s Soccer, but I really feel like those two days that I spent with him were more valuable than a lot of formal education I’ve had in the past. 

Kelly: [0:21:58] True, false? You played pickleball with Anson Dorrance?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:22:00] True. 

Juliet: [0:22:04] You know, it is interesting, I just have to add to how under the radar he is, because I had never heard of him until Kelly read his book and then-

Kelly: [0:22:10] Because of Rachel.

Juliet: [0:22:11] And then it piqued my interest because Kelly was laying in bed at night reading this book and weeping, which isn’t a nightly occurrence for Kelly. And he’s like, “I don’t understand, I’m reading this book about coaching and I’m just sitting here weeping.” But he was. I mean he really was weeping. It had such an impact on him. And once I learned more about who he was, I had the same thought, why is this guy not legendary. And I keep having this secret fantasy of giving it as a gift to all of my kids’ water polo coaches, hoping they’d read it because I think there could be so much they learn from it.

Kelly: [0:22:43] Let me jump in because one of Juliet’s secret weapons that she learned from her mother, her mother Janet is a journalist, and Janet told Juliet a long time ago that if you pick up the phone and call or if you show up in person, you’d be surprised at the access, and that people will take your call. But people are afraid. I mean you have a unique skillset. But you’ve done this a lot. You sound like you show up unannounced and just like, “Can I come and observe?” And you didn’t show up to be part of the program. You showed up to shut up and watch how practices run. I mean honestly that much. And that’s something you do and really hammer on our daughters, Juliet, that you can ask, that you can show up, that you can be a participant. I mean this is one of your secret powers. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:23:31] Actually, I mean I have a story about you that you know or you don’t know, or maybe we’ve talked… I don’t think we’ve actually talked about this really from this perspective. But I’ve done this so many times over the course of my career. So one of the things I talk to the women that I mentor, it’s like buy a plane ticket. Oh, you’re broke? I get it. Buy it anyway. Show up there. You would be so shocked at the access… You just said it. Janet’s a wizard. She knew a long time ago.

I’ll finish the UNC story. Basically, I showed up to watch two practices, one of which got canceled because they had a mental wellness day, whatever that means. Who cares about that? So they had a mental wellness day. So I was like, all right, well, I guess I’m going to watch one UNC women’s soccer practice. And I was still happy to be there. And then of course I showed up to practice. And then of course, coach is like, “What are you doing tonight?” And I’m like, “Whatever you’re doing.” And then he’s like, “Let’s play pickleball.” So I show up and he throws me the pickleball. And then after pickleball he’s like, “What are you doing after pickleball?” I’m like, “Whatever you’re doing.” He’s like, “All right, great.” I ride along with him to a women’s professional soccer game. He’s dropping me off that night. He’s like, “What are you doing tomorrow morning?” I’m like, “Whatever you’re doing, coach.” So he just kept inviting me, because obviously you have to add value. We had some great conversations. But if I hadn’t have done that, it’s like, what, I would have emailed him some questions, he’s like, “Work hard, believe in yourself.” Just showing up, I can’t stress enough.

And with you, I’ve done this so many times. I can’t even list how many times I’ve done this. But with you, for example, I was in Amsterdam, I don’t even know what time of year it was, it must have been spring time, and you texted me out of the blue and you’re like, I think you said, “Hey, how far are you from Munich?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” But I was close. “What’s up?” And you were like, “I’m going to be here for this conference.” Whatever. And I was so broke, Kelly. I was so broke. I was on my way to depleting my entire life savings and maxing out my credit card. I was so broke. And I was like, doo doo doo. Plane ticket to Munich, got it. Hundred-dollar Uber to get to the conference, got it. Because why not? I knew how much value I could get from learning from you and being around you. And obviously I got to go hiking in Bavaria. That’s not bad either. 

But it’s like I have done that so many times. And I don’t know how much money I’ve spent on it, but I can about guarantee you it’s all paid off 10-fold to do that. And I think people, they say, “Well, I can’t afford it.” And I’m like, yeah. I don’t have kids. I don’t have certain things. But honestly, I have been broke. So I get it. But I view that as a learning experience. And people have no problem dropping $1,000 on a conference or whatever, an online learning thing, it’s like, well, why not just buy a plane ticket? It’s probably the same amount and you might get more out of it.

Juliet: [0:26:22] Yeah, I mean there’s just so much to I guess maybe the word for it is experiential learning. I don’t know if that’s the way to describe it, but yeah.

Kelly: [0:26:28] Real networking. You know everyone.

Juliet: [0:26:29] But I mean real connecting with other humans and learning and sitting around on a couch and having conversations. I mean that’s just priceless. 

Kelly: [0:26:37] There is one more thing I wanted to say that really is kind of lost in there, is that you show up ready to be a participant. I can think of a thousand times where, oh, we’re going to go train. And you’re like, “Oh, what are we doing?” I’m like, “You’ll be fine.” And then we push the prowler for a mile or do some kind of horrible thing. And it may not fit into your programming at that moment or what you’re working on, but you’re down to experiment, down to participate. And I think one of the things that I’m always trying to tell coaches is go be a student again, right? Put yourself in a situation where you don’t have any control or don’t have any agency in terms of the programming or the situation, and just participate. And I just want to give full credit that you do such a good job of that. And I’ve tried to break you a few times in the workouts and I can’t. 

Juliet: [0:27:25] You see how strong she is?

Kelly: [0:27:27] Yes, I know.

Juliet: [0:27:27] She’s so strong.

Kelly: [0:27:28] I know she’s so strong.

Juliet: [0:27:29] I’m like she is so strong. You cannot break her. I just want to switch gears a little bit, Rachel, because I know that you’ve gotten really interested in thinking about organizational culture and talking about that, and so I’d just love to hear more about what you’re thinking about, why you’re interested in it, where your brain is.

Kelly: [0:27:47] And how are we doing currently with organizational culture? Are we killing it or not?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:27:54] Are you talking about we like The Ready State?

Kelly: [0:27:57] No, no, no. We are killing it at The Ready State.

Juliet: [0:27:59] He’s talking about we humanity, I think.

Kelly: [0:28:00] I think even just professional organizations that you interact with. 

Rachel Balkovec: [0:28:04] Okay. So why do I think about it? Well, I think I’ve been genuinely interested in this since I was probably like 15, but I didn’t know that I had this calling to do it in my career. So I kind of thought, oh, strength and conditioning. And it was a great way to start out. Strength and conditioning was wonderful to start out learning the body and have a bird’s eye view of the organization of baseball. But now my goal is to be a general manager. And I say that because, for example, and some strength coaches out there are going to be laughing, some are going to be crying when I say this. But when you’re a strength coach, you might be setting the culture in the hour that you have with the players. But you’re not setting the organizational culture. Not even close. In fact, you have trainer is your boss, physical therapist is your boss, nutritionist might be your boss. Oh, and by the way, all the coaches are your bosses. And then you also have your actual boss. And then you are more or less at the bottom of the totem pole. And if you are okay with that, then that’s great. But I don’t know actually a lot of coaches that are okay with that. 

So I guess my thought process when I first moved to Amsterdam, I left strength and conditioning, I knew I wanted to be a general manager, but I know this is going to come as a surprise to everyone, especially you two, I’m not taking the traditional path. The traditional path would be I go into scouting and I start sitting behind a computer and I stop working with the players and I basically get on a route to more of an analytics office job. And instead, I chose to do hitting because I’m a generalist by nature, but also, I think that a general manager could benefit from being a true generalist and understanding many facets of the business and many facets of development. So I went from strength and conditioning to hitting, and I’m not sure what the next step will be, but it will be literally I am intentionally trying to pick up skills to become a general manager.

To answer the second part of your question, I’m wildly fascinated by the interactions between groups of people and especially for me in professional baseball, we have Latin American players and we have American players. And the distance between those two groups of humans is so large it’s almost incomprehensible to think that they have to come together and work towards a common goal. And so I think that there’s, yeah, okay, I’m a hitting coach and I’ve been a strength coach, and yeah, I’m interested in those topics. I’ve spent 10,000 hours coaching for sure and maybe 10,000 in strength and conditioning; just starting over with hitting. But what really wakes me up in the morning is like, okay, this player and this player, they need to get along so they can work better together on the field, so I need to put them together in this group, and then I need to design this practice so that they’re communicating together for a common goal. And I think about practice design and cultural design more than I think about hitting, for sure. For sure. Hopefully no one from the Yankees listens to this podcast. No, I’m just kidding. They can listen. They know this.

Kelly: [0:31:04] You took something from Anson Dorrance, which we have taken and talked a lot about, and I’ve even talked about it with my girls, about knowing where you are in the program because practice matters and that you’re gamifying practice. I think he calls it the competitive cauldron. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and how you’ve actually applied it because I think a lot of coaches and people who are listening to this who might not even be in the strength and conditioning field could use this idea in their own work. Can you talk about the competitive cauldron a little bit?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:31:35] I seriously think you can use it. It’s literally just human behavior. It’s maximizing human behavior. So how do you get groups of people to work together to do something that is difficult, disliked, or just out of the norm? And that’s the competitive cauldron in my eyes. Anson would probably describe it as making practice matter for soccer players. But I think you can apply that concept to just about anything. So you create these small societies. So the way that I’ve implemented it in baseball is within the group of athletes that I work with, to get them to work together and to get them to become better teammates to each other, within that group we create small societies. So we create teams. So for example, just this year, we created three teams and they were competing for points in practice. Now they weren’t competing for points in games, but they would do something in the game that would get them points for their team, with their individual team within a team.

Kelly: [0:32:28] Like a game within a game.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:32:29] The game within the game. So in practice, for example, we might do a velocity competition, so whoever hits the ball the hardest gets points for their team, something like that. I mean we assigned it to everything. We did something fun one day where we played ping pong and the winning team for ping pong got points for their team. We totally switched it up. Points were just added in at random basically. We had some staples. But we put points on just about everything that we could. And we made it a game for them to work together. And the best thing about this is it’s not just a game, right? When they were playing the actual baseball game and let’s say one of the teammates hit a double or something, which was worth let’s say two points, they would be cheering on the team. So one of the team names was Maniaticos, which is Maniacs in Spanish. And they’d be like, “Yeah, Maniaticos, let’s go, points!” And I had a board in the dugout where I would be giving points to individual teams for their individual outcomes on the field. I think also it’s important to mention how critical this is.

Kelly: [0:33:33] This is a minor league game against another organization. And the other organization as you told it is flat going through some preseason game. And your athletes are going bananas for a double.

Juliet: [0:33:46] Because they’re trying to get points for their sub-team, which is amazing.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:33:50] The other team, and I try to not mention any names, you’ll have to bleep it out if I accidentally say it, the other team literally got upset. And they’re like, “You guys are just showmen and you’re trying to show us up,” because we beat this team quite a bit. But they thought we were like taunting them almost because the kids were so loud cheering for each other. And again, to give some context, you might think, oh yeah, you work for the Yankees, you’re professional baseball, you might think, well, that’s how it should be, right? But it just isn’t, especially in minor league baseball where it’s hard to describe but basically wins don’t matter. So these kids get drafted and the next time that wins really count and they really have to work together as a team is in the big leagues, and for most players, that’s fine to seven years where they are just getting individually promoted or demoted and they’re not… They do care about their teammates over time because they get to know them, but it’s really lost. If they have a good game, they’re happy for themselves and they don’t really care whether somebody else had a bad game because the win doesn’t matter for them. 

So it was making practice matter but also making minor league games matter. Making these kind of scrimmage games where it’s very quiet, sometimes you can hear a pin drop, and they’re just going crazy and cheering on their teammates and upping the intensity and upping the pressure for themselves. So that’s just one example. But basically, it’s creating these small societies and assigning points and having this external point board. So whatever that means to you in your setting out there, having a secondary point board where internally everybody can see it, but maybe the external, you can’t see the points outside of it. But they care about that almost more than they do about the game.

Juliet: [0:35:34] I think the other thing that I learned, and by the way, I actually haven’t read his book but I feel like I have because Kelly and I talk about it so much, so caveat there, and so if I don’t-

Kelly: [0:35:44] I feel like I’ve gone to law school.

Juliet: [0:35:45] Yeah, exactly. If I don’t tell it exactly correctly, you’ll understand why. But I think so many athletes are bench players. I mean so many athletes in youth sports all the way up to professional sports. And I think if I’m understanding you correctly, one of the things Anson Dorrance does so well is make it really obvious to the bench players what they would need to do to get off the bench, and simultaneously, the non-bench, the actual players, are always a little scared because they are always at any given time at risk of losing their spot. And I think just because my current vantage point is youth sports, that’s something that is really lost. In youth sports, it’s like they pick their six players and then there are seven bench players.

Kelly: [0:36:27] You never know why.

Juliet: [0:36:27] and then that never changes throughout the season. And none of the players know why. The bench players don’t know why they’ve been put on the bench or what they can do to get off the bench, and the players don’t know why they’ve been chosen or what they would do to lose their spot.

Kelly: [0:36:37] Or how to get better. 

Juliet: [0:36:38] Or how to get better. And so it’s this weird dynamic and once I learned this from Kelly, I was like, how is every team not run like this, it’s amazing.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:36:47] And inherently, thankfully, baseball from an individual standpoint, we have so many metrics. So if they usually do… I mean most of the time they actually do know why they are or they aren’t getting moved up or down or whatever because we have so many systems to measure literally everything on their body and everything that they do performance wise.

Kelly: [0:37:11] In practice too? Does that go for in practice?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:37:13] Pretty much. So yeah. But you forget, in professional baseball, we play a game every single day, so they’re getting metrics every single day. But to your point though, to raise the level of intensity during practices and things outside of the game, that’s where the competitive cauldron can really help just about anyone. But yeah, that’s a principle that we kind of have. The competitive cauldron is not the same for the metrics that we get because there’s no rewards or punishments, I guess you could say. 

So this is also why it’s critical, why I think it’s so valuable in professional baseball, to create a competitive cauldron, because a guy could be performing extremely well and not get promoted because maybe he didn’t sign for as much money or he’s younger and they want him to stay there and then he sees his friends getting promotions, and the reward and the punishment system is not clear. So a player that signed for a lot of money who the organization wants to move up, and this is not just the Yankees, this is obviously every team, a player that signed for a lot of money, he might move up faster than somebody who’s doing better than him. So that’s very convoluted. It’s why I think it’s even more critical for us specifically in professional baseball where it’s not really fair where there can be a place where they know how they’re getting points and they know how they’re getting rewards and they know how when they lose, they dynamic is pretty murky when you think about professional playing time in sports in general but in baseball for sure as well. 

But in youth sports, no, to your point, Juliet, it’s pretty clear cut. They absolutely should be keeping points in practice so there is no question. Okay, so and so’s getting more playing time than me, what can I do to improve. And by the way, I saw the board when I went to UNC, and the girls go right up to it at practice, and they’re looking at their numbers. And it’s like in the book he mentions this could be taboo, right, because there are obviously girls that could be at the bottom of the list who haven’t gotten the points. Could be taboo. Could hurt their feelings. But I would argue it hurts their feelings more if there’s ambiguity. So like you were saying, in youth sports, they don’t know why and that’s really painful. But if it was clear cut and they had direction, I mean it’s so much easier.

Juliet: [0:39:29] Oh, it’s so much easier to be able to say, “Hey, look, you weren’t actually ever scoring any points,” if that was one of the metrics.

Kelly: [0:39:35] You never take any shots.

Juliet: [0:39:35] Never take any shots.

Kelly: [0:39:36] Or every shot you take, you miss.

Juliet: [0:39:37] Yeah. That would be an obvious metric. You could say to any kid in any sport, “You never attempted to take a shot, so you’re in the bottom of the list,” or whatever.

Kelly: [0:39:44] You missed every pass you made. I mean those things. One of the things I really love about that is it actually teaches people to be good teammates too. You can actually root for someone else’s success, which doesn’t happen a lot, especially in professional sports where everyone is so worried about being vulnerable, about giving that power away. And I think that happens in culture around business too. That piece of play and Juliet’s on my team, or today Juliet’s on my team, and because her success is my success, it buoys all boats.

Let me ask you this: You said you felt like you were a generalist. And I know what that means. What does that mean for you? Because I’ll give you an example: When you said I went to Amsterdam to get a master’s degree, you went to Amsterdam and got a master’s degree in sports monitoring, which is for me death, like the worst thing I could think of. Like hey, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go to Amsterdam and have all my teeth pulled out. That’s what it sounds like to me. I hate all of that. I’m so glad other people are into organic chemistry and sports monitoring. I benefit from it. But can you talk about how you became a generalist and what that means to you because I think… Let me give you one more example. Juliet is really competent at being CEO because she’s an athlete, she’s a user, she’s a mom, she’s in a bunch of other businesses, she runs this business. You know what I mean? There’s so many diverse exposures that Juliet has that she doesn’t hyperspecialize and become myopic. Can you tell what a generalist means to you?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:41:12] Yeah, just so you know, being in Amsterdam was pulling teeth for me, so it’s-

Kelly: [0:41:18] I know that was true. I know that was true.

Juliet: [0:41:18] Let me correct the record. 

Rachel Balkovec: [0:41:21] Yeah. I did not like studying physics and neuroscience and I think I’ve forgotten all of it already of course. But that was a play actually to become more general. But it’s really hard to be that laser focused on one subject for that long for me. But basically, I think the original question was how did I become a generalist. I honestly, I don’t know, but I’ve always been so curious about other cultures since I was young. I mean since I was little. I sometimes attribute this to actually my father worked for American Airlines for 35 years, retired. And we were very, very middle class, but we got to travel more than the average family maybe because we had free flights. I grew up in Nebraska but I just got exposed. And at the time, it was just different areas of the country, right? So I could fly to different areas. Obviously, playing sports and playing softball really competitively, traveling all over the country, moving to New Mexico where I lived when I graduated. So I’ve been so curious about other cultures. I’ve always had this curious nature about me. 

But applying that to a career is when I got into strength and conditioning, within strength and conditioning I went to Exos and did my internship, which was at the time, I was Athlete Performance, but it was super functional, super movement before movement was cool, and I think it was probably when you were starting to get cool, I’m not sure. And then I went to LSU and I learned Olympic weightlifting, which is the antithesis of mobility people usually. 

And so I had this meathead side of me, I had this movement side of me, and everything in between. I’ve always wanted to be good at many things, which by the way, stops me from being phenomenally great at one thing, and I’m totally okay with that. So no surprise, as a strength coach, I was always popping into pitching meetings and hitting meetings and front office meetings and scouting meetings and trying to learn the whole picture so that I could be better at my job as a strength coach. But in reverse, as you mentioned with Juliet, what I think is going to make me hopefully a better candidate to be a general manager is the fact that I’ll have strength and conditioning, hitting, probably scouting, operations, I’ll have done all of these things so when I’m evaluating all of these departments, I’ll have many tools and not just one really great one. It’s a life philosophy and it’s professional philosophy too because I think it just makes you more round and definitely able to do maybe a better job and definitely more jobs for sure.

Juliet: [0:43:46] So this is a bit of a departure from what we have been talking about, but I must know, and I want to preface this by saying I know that you were a D1 softball player and maybe this is the answer why, but why baseball. Why did you go into baseball of all… You were strength and conditioning coach, it certainly could have been women’s soccer or any sport. Why baseball? Was it because of your softball background? That’s my A question and I’ll let you take it before I ask my B question.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:44:14] I think this is going to be a little longer than you want. Baseball to me was wildly fascinating because of the actual structure of professional baseball. So when I was going through my master’s degree, so I was just out of my undergrad, some of my friends had been drafted to play professional baseball. And I didn’t know what that means because not even baseball fans know what that means. That means you get put into the minor league system and then you grind away for five to six years and you become this lost boy where you don’t really have any friends back home anymore but then you get spit out five years later, your degree is useless. And by the way, in strength and conditioning, they were working out at the local YMCA on the road and eating hotdogs before games. And I was hearing all these stories and I was like what in the hell is going on over there, I need to… And I was at LSU, which at the time everyone was kicking ass. It was this electric, crazy culture. And it was a blast. And I was like what is going on in professional baseball. 

And even if I read my first ever cover letter that I set out to get an internship with the St. Louis Cardinals, it says I want to move baseball forward. So I’ve always had this idea of making baseball better and creating a more forward-thinking environment and making it better for minor league players and providing better care to minor league players as they go through their journey. So from the get go, it’s really always been about making change and improving the business of professional sports. At the time, that was for me saying I want to move strength and conditioning forward in the sport of professional baseball.

So that was a part of it. Once I got a little bit down my path, so I’ll say right after I graduated from LSU, I had just been at LSU as a GA, so within the year, I got I think eight different divisional schools reaching out to me like you aid and offering women’s sports jobs. And I don’t even know how in my young self I understood this, but every time I got on the phone, I was like, “I will consider this job if you add in a male sport,” because I knew what my future looked like, if I was working with only women’s sports at the time. Definitely has changed a little bit, but not much. Your salary is a quarter of what men’s sports are going to be. The path is just not as good. It has changed. There are some opportunities that have taken shape. But I just knew. And I kept getting all these calls for women’s sports. I was like, wait a second, I’ve already worked with a bunch of men, why can’t I work with men. 

Meanwhile, I wanted to get into professional baseball. And I knew at the time I had already been discriminated against heavily and had been told I was being discriminated against outright. I knew if I didn’t continue to have men’s sports on my resume, I couldn’t get into baseball. So I kind of along the way got this chip on my shoulder and was like, well, I have to do this, because if I don’t do it and I have a great resume, when’s the next woman going to come along with a better resume than me that can handle this job. So I kind of was learning the way of the world and it became my mission to get into professional baseball at some point.

Juliet: [0:47:08] So I have a quick substory about that. Our neighbor who lives four doors up from us was a professional baseball player, but only ever in the minors. And I had no idea how baseball worked until I met him. And I think I asked him something like, “Well, were you like a semi-professional baseball player?” I didn’t really understand. He’s like, “No, no, no, I was a full professional baseball player. I just never made it out of the minors.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I’m one of those people who had no idea and I think there’s many of me.

And then my next question, which by the way, fascinating story, which makes so much sense to me, why you were like, wait, why can’t I work with men. And now obviously we know that you are hitting coach with the Yankees, but why hitting? Why did you go strength and conditioning, hitting coach, versus other specialties?

Kelly: [0:47:54] And is one better than the other?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:47:58] Oh my God, being a hitting coach for me is so much more fun than being a strength coach, to be honest with you. So much more fun. It’s so much more fun to do things with people who want to be there. Guys will come in the cages, I’ve already got the music cranked up, so they’ll come in the cages, they’re like dancing, they’re having fun. They want to hit. They want to hit extra. They want to be there, right?  Nobody wants to run conditioning, usually. Nobody wants to do these uncomfortable things. So just that alone, honestly has been a huge eye opener for how much more effective I can be with coaching or anyone can be with coaching when people really want to be there.

Why hitting? So when I left strength and conditioning, or I should say when I left, 2018, the organization I was with, I wasn’t exactly sure but I had a great mentor, I’m going to credit Dillon Lawson, who is my current boss with the Yankees. I had, like I said, popped into hitting meetings, popped into pitching meetings. I was all over the place. If I had a free spot on my schedule, I was not sitting in the office. I was in a meeting somewhere else listening to other professionals in our organization be awesome because they were. And Dillon Lawson was one of them. And he exposed me basically to eye tracking and pitch recognition for hitters. And I as a college softball player hadn’t even heard of that concept. Why would your brain and your eyeballs be important for hitting a ball that’s moving 100 miles an hour? I don’t know.

Kelly: [0:49:20] Makes no sense. 

Rachel Balkovec: [0:49:21] Yeah. It makes no sense. So I had never even heard of that concept and he just blew my mind with the information. Not only that, but he was feeding me research articles. So when I moved to Amsterdam, I knew my degree, I knew it was going to be in basically human movement sciences, Kelly’s absolute nightmare. And then on top of that, I kind of knew I’d be doing research on eye tracking for hitters. So I thought hitting coach was possible. But again, I mean you guys know this, but the climate was there were no women hitting coaches. So I was like, well, if I can’t be a hitting coach, I’ll prepare myself as if I’m going to be a hitting coach, but I can also go into scouting from that perspective. I can probably get into some kind of analytics or sports science for sure. But I just didn’t even know if it was possible for me to get a hitting coach job. So I was leaving the door open and then also again in my future just thinking going hitting and not something else, I wanted to get closer to on field evaluation with players so that in the future I can be a better evaluator of players and I can be a better evaluator of coaches of players in an administrative role.

Kelly: [0:50:23] I talk about with Georgia, even with Caroline, being able to play anywhere and being valuable to the organization, that if your coach wants you to go jump into goalie, you’re like, “Okay, coach.” It’s not your dream, but you can do it. And the coach is like, “Oh, I always have this person who can do any job, any time.” And one of the things I want to point out is that there is an aspect of when people here generalism, they think dilettantism, that you just dabble. You don’t dabble. You go deep nerd in these verticals and become very, very competent before you realize what the next piece is. So shoutout to that, big time. Rachel, you are writing a book. You’re in between smashing glass ceilings in professional sports. You are working your mentorship program. There’s a lot of work in there. What are you excited about? Where are you going? What’s the next thing, the next sort of iteration? What are you chewing on? What’s got you excited?

Rachel Balkovec: [0:51:24] You just listed all of it. 

Kelly: [0:51:27] That’s your day job. I want to know what’s going on besides the day job.

Rachel Balkovec [0:51:29] I think it’s important to talk about these things and I probably just made myself sound like a workaholic or something. But I take sabbaticals so I’m clearly not a workaholic. So I’m excited about being able, I’ve crested a time in my career I think to devote more time to relationships. And I have a relationship right now, I’m in a relationship. And I think I’ve realized especially as a woman in the field how difficult that was and how I was really unable to do that earlier. And so finally, I’m 12 years in, I guess 10 years into professional baseball, and I have a relationship, and I’m really excited about that. And I’m actually in Santa Barbara to be with this person. And I think that as coaches and probably a lot of people that are listening to this podcast can relate to this, is we want to spend all this time to develop our careers and our knowledge, and we also have to carve out time to develop our personal side of things. So I think that’s probably actually immediately on my mind right now. I’m not sure if that’s what you were looking for, but that’s what I’m thinking about.

Kelly: [0:52:33] Heck yeah. I can say that I’ve just been grinding alone. No, what I’ll tell you is that none of this exists without my family. And figuring out a way to work that in is really tricky.  I think you really are giving voice to the fact that there’s certainly a double standard for women that I’ve perceived and definitely anyone who’s creating something, the thing that gets you here is not the thing that keeps you here.

Rachel Balkovec [0:52:58] You know, I observe all my male colleagues in baseball having kids and their wives taking care of their kids where they have these crazy careers where they can’t breathe and they work for 12 hours a day. And people will make comments like, “Oh Rachel, you need to have kids.” And I’m like, “That’s cool. Where would they be? Your wife takes care of your kids. And I don’t have that.” And it’s less likely, it’s not impossible, it’s less likely that I will have that. And I’m 34. I don’t mind saying my age. You consider those things and you can’t go back. So trying to navigate that. I think we’re in a much better position to start asking for maternity leave. And I’m not even planning on having kids, but it’s like wait, I don’t even have maternity leave if I needed it. So because guys don’t have babies, so it’s just not in the contracts for professional baseball coaches, so.

Kelly: [0:53:53] You didn’t have a locker room in some of the organizations that you worked with.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:53:56] Yeah, just until the Yankees actually. No women’s locker room, which I think that’s changing actually. But it’s funny, yeah, for I guess seven years of my career I didn’t have a locker room. And even the organization that I was with previously, and this is actually not against them, it’s literally just representative of all the organizations at the time, but 2017 they we rebuilding a $20 million brand new facility and I was touring it before it was finished and I said, “Where’s the women’s locker room?” And they were like, “Uh, we don’t have one.” And I was like, “You’re building a brand-new facility and I am a current employee.” And it’s really not against that organization; it’s more so that was the mindset even four years ago. So I showed up to the Yankees, they have a full women’s locker room. There’s two nutritionists, two sports science professionals that are women. They were kind of like, “You’re the last. You’re old news. We’ve got a women’s locker room, it’s all set up.” So things have changed. I’m so glad I’ve stuck around to see so much positive change. I’m like wow, I never would have imagined this in 2012, you know?

Juliet: [0:55:00] Well, and also, I’m old now and I can say this because I think you realize when you’re old that change is incremental. And so I think sometimes we want it to be immediate gratification, right? So I think if you went into baseball expecting in six months deep organizations to make these immediate changes to accommodate you, you already would have left the sport, right? So it’s awesome you appreciated that these incremental changes will happen and you stuck around and are actually starting to see that now. And I think that’s so cool.

Kelly: [0:55:28] Believe it or not, there’s a Dune quote here.

Juliet: [0:55:31] Oh, shocker.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:55:32] Oh my God.

Kelly: [0:55:33] The slow blade penetrates the shield. 

Juliet: [0:55:36] One last thing before we let you go off to continue sabbatical-ing that I appreciate, and maybe the word for it is goals, but I appreciate that you’ve said a few times my goal is to be a general manager, because I do think there’s something to say for just putting that out there into the universe. And another word for it which I think is kind of funny is manifesting. There’s just something about saying it. you’re saying it out loud.

Kelly: [0:56:00] See your future, be your future.

Juliet: [0:56:00] See your future, be your future, whatever it is, I think it’s cool that you’re saying it out loud because I have no doubt it will happen. 

Rachel Balkovec: [0:56:06] Thank you.

Kelly: [0:56:07] Rachel, you were my first coach friend on TikTok, I just want to give you a shoutout for that. You and Manny in Australia. We were all like, “I don’t know about TikTok.” And then you were like, “I’m going on TikTok. I’m letting all these people know.” So besides being another trendsetter by embracing the kids and TikTok, where can we find you on the social webs.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:56:28] You’ve got to go where the kids are. I need to connect with young people who are eventually going to come to baseball games when I’m a general manager. And so that’s where it’s at. I’m getting better at that day by day. But yeah, basically if you can spell my last name, you can find me. It’s I think @rachel.balkovec on Instagram, Rachel_Balkovec on Twitter maybe, and rachelbalkovec.com. So good luck spelling Balkovec, but that’s where you can find me.

Juliet: [0:56:53] Well, we’ll link to all that in the show notes, so we’ll make it easy for people. Rachel, thank you so much.

Kelly: [0:56:58] Thank you.

Juliet: [0:56:59] It’s such a pleasure to see your face and chat.

Rachel Balkovec: [0:57:02] Thank you, friends. Appreciate it.

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