Needless to say, there are more men in the fitness profession then there are women. In recent years, more and more women are becoming certified trainers and some have even stepped into the heavily male dominant circle of pro/college sports.
Today we have a special guest with us, Rachel Balkovec. Rachel and the Cardinals have been part of our PUSH Beta program for a number of months now, but that's not why we have her here today. Rachel is the first female strength & conditioning coordinator in major league baseball. . Read on to hear about how Rachel became a strength coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and, what some of the obstacles she faces on a day to day and who her role models are/were. And no matter your gender, if you want to be inspired, listen to her incredible story.
1. Rachel, I know summer ball can be quite busy so we really appreciate you joining us today. Being part of a major league team, you must travel a lot. Where are you today?
I am finally back in Jupiter at our spring training facility, our home base, but I just got back from a 14 day trip to our affiliates at Peoria, IL, Johnson City, TN and State College, PA. I leave for Memphis, TN and Springfield, MO in a few days. Good thing I love to travel!
2. That is good - ok Rachel let’s get right into it today. Here’s the question we’re all eager to hear an answer to, what did it take to become the first female strength coach in major league baseball? Take us through your journey.
I’ve lived in 8 different states, so pardon this novel! I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and was then recruited to play softball at the University of New Mexico, which is where my passion for the weight room really began. While I had what most would consider a lackluster career, I really excelled in the weight room and realized early on that I wanted to turn it into a career. Because of my time spent on the field, baseball and softball strength and conditioning was a natural choice. I still reference things that I learned during my playing career in application to how I handle the players now. During my undergraduate career, I was an intern at Athletes’ Performance and went on to be a graduate assistant strength coach at LSU while studying to get my masters in Sports Administration. When I finished at LSU, I got the opportunity of a lifetime, working for the St. Louis Cardinals at their rookie league affiliate, the Johnson City Cardinals. That was what really got my foot in the door. When people ask me if I consider myself a pioneer, the answer is easy. The true pioneer in this situation is the Cardinals organization. They are the ones who broke the barrier and took a chance on hiring a female.
I enjoyed my time with the Cardinals, but decided that I wanted to try my hand at a PhD. Before moving to Phoenix to start a few prerequisites at Arizona State University, I spent 3 months living in the Dominican Republic working in the front office for a Dominican Winter League team called Los Tigres Del Licey. Shortly after going back to school, I realized that my first passion was coaching and that a PhD wasn’t necessary to accomplish what I wanted to do. More specifically, I knew that I had really enjoyed my first experience with the Cardinals and that there is a lot of work to be done in advancing the field of strength and conditioning within professional baseball. That is something that really attracts me specifically to MLB.
So, at the age of 25 after being out of the field for a year, I started over again. I was volunteering at Arizona State University working with their athletes, working for 30 dollars a day with the White Sox as their Arizona Fall League strength coach and waitressing on the side to support myself. In the mean time, I was applying for every one of the 14 baseball jobs that were posted. Things were starting to look bleak when I only had 1 offer by December and it was for a seasonal internship in the same league that I was in during the 2011 season. I started to wonder what was going on. At that time, I had professional, collegiate, private and international baseball strength and conditioning experience on my resume. I feared that despite my colorful and diverse resume, I was missing out on opportunities for other reasons. I had a handful of friends in the professional baseball world and started asking around to find out if they could provide any insight. My fears were confirmed when several friends in organizations that I had applied with told me that I was getting turned down for positions because of my gender. As angry as I was, I wasn’t going to stop applying. I even changed my name on my resume to Rae to appear like I might be a male candidate. Obviously when they called me they would find out, but my hopes were that I would at least get an interview and possibly change their mind about me being capable for the job.
Around Christmas time last year, Pete Prinzi’s name (The St. Louis Cardinals Major League strength coach) popped up on my caller ID. There was no job posted for the Cardinals at that time and the only position that I knew was open was the coordinator position, so I thought he was calling because someone had called him for a reference. I was confused and pleasantly surprised to say the least when he asked me if I was interested in being their next coordinator. The moral of that LONG story is this: Everyone’s path is different, if you really want something, be willing to work for it and stick to your guns. And- if all else fails change your name on your resume. Ha!
3. What an unbelievable story - I’m impressed by your determination and desire to make it to that level. You do hear more and more women entering the fitness profession, there are even many female S&C coaches in college sports (mainly working with female athletes). But why don’t you see more females working at the pro level?
Every time that I got rejected for an entry-level minor league position, I told myself, - It’s not that I can’t handle it. It’s that professional baseball can’t handle it. Teams are afraid that hiring a woman might mean that they have to change their daily operations or have an extra worry on their hands that they really don’t need. They may doubt whether or not a female could gain the respect of the players or if she will be able to motivate the players in the same way that a man could. Some worry about facility concerns or a long list of other excuses. Luckily for me, the Cardinals took a leap of faith and I am getting a chance to lessen those concerns for other teams. Maybe they will say, ‘Well, if the Cardinals made it work, so can we.’ Or, ‘If she was able to get the respect of the players, there are others that will be able to do the same.’
4. Do you feel like the male players within the organization treat you differently because you’re a female?
Not at all. Or if they do, they’re fooling me! I won’t get in to the specific things that I hear and see sometimes, but let’s just say they’re not holding anything back! Some people may see that as disrespectful to women, but to me it’s a sign of respect. It means that I am just blending in and that they don’t feel like they have to alter their actions around me. It means I fit in. There is a buffering period for some guys who think they might have to hold back or walk on eggshells around me. But, I’m fairly confident that after one conversation with me, they’re thinking...’Hmm, that’s not what I expected!’ In fact, some of them have said that to my face. Ha!
5. I’ve played on many teams over the years so I can only imagine their comments. Since the moment you knew you wanted to become a strength coach, was it always your goal to be part of a major sports organization? And who were some of your role models?
Fairly early on, I knew that I wanted to be in athletics and baseball was a natural choice for me because of my playing career in softball. I would have chosen softball, but there is no professional league that is established enough to hire and pay strength coaches. Professional baseball is specifically intriguing to me because of two unique challenges that it presents. First, this is the only sport in which they are literally playing nearly every day. To find a way to keep their strength and power up as well as keeping them healthy is an interesting feat. Also, strength and conditioning is very behind in professional baseball as a whole. I would love to be a part of helping the career field develop in this area of athletics. I hope that I can truly make an impact on the industry as a whole.
There are MANY women that influenced my career, but a few stick out in my mind. In 2009, I completed my undergraduate internship at Athletes’ Performance in Gulf Breeze, FL. At the time, Sue Falsone was their head physical therapist and had just been hired on to work concurrently with the Dodgers as the first ever female physical therapist in Major League Baseball. She made her way to the facility I was working at in Gulf Breeze and one of the first things I said to her was that she was my hero. When I saw that she had been hired, I was certain at that point that I would follow in her footsteps in my respective field. Meg Ritchie, better known as Dr. Meg Stone was also someone that I really looked up to. She was the first ever female head strength and conditioning coach in the collegiate setting at Arizona University in the 80’s. To have done what she did 30 years before I hold this position is incredible. I thought it was difficult to get this position, but compared to what she had to face, this was easy! Last, but not least, the Director of Olympic Strength and Conditioning at LSU, Melissa Moore, was a great influence for me and truly was a huge support when I was entering the field. She is a Jill-of-all-trades and is a woman that I look up to in both my personal and professional life. She can do it all!
6. We love Dr. Meg Stone as well! Let’s change gears a little bit and get some insight into what you do on a day to day basis. There are several strength coaches within the organization - how does everyone’s role differ? Are you in charge of a particular group of athletes (say the pitchers for example)?
There are 10 strength coaches on staff. We have 1 Major League strength coach, Pete Prinzi, who is based in St. Louis and travels with the Major League team, 8 minor league strength coaches who live and work at our minor league affiliates and myself. I am the coordinator, which means that I am based out of our spring training facility and I travel to the affiliates 1-2 times per season to assess the nutrition, program implementation and player-coach relationships. My primary responsibility while I am at the complex here in Jupiter is taking care of the rehab group. (Any players who have had a serious injury to the point of not being able to participate in games for an extended period of time.)
7. Can you briefly compare an off-season training day with an in-season training day.
The biggest difference between an off-season and in-season workout would be the volume. We don’t reinvent the wheel when we shift to the off-season program. The priorities shift from on field performance during the season to performance in the weight room during the off season. Professional baseball is unique because the athletes are literally playing almost every day starting in March going through August and sometimes into September (At the Minor League level). Over that long season, the guys tend to detrain a bit. No matter how well they are doing with their training program and nutrition, they are fatigued. First they have a 2-3 week active rest. Starting about the beginning of October, they begin building back up so they get stronger and more durable for the next long season. The first priority is being healthy and enhancing their on field performance is a very close second.
8. I know that the demands of each position within baseball differ, but can you highlight 2-3 attributes that every baseball player needs in order to be successful.
First and foremost, the thing that you see consistently amongst all big leaguers is an outstanding work ethic and the ability to adapt mentally. However, I’m assuming you mean physically speaking – Every successful baseball player has to be both effective AND healthy. If he’s not healthy, he has no chance of being effective. Having said that, there are 3 very important physical attributes beyond the general concepts of ‘strength and power’ that are very important to a players’ health and in turn, his ability to compete: Leg strength and power, hip mobility and good posture. Hip mobility and good posture are contributors to the injury prevention side of things. Hip mobility decreases the chance of minor soft tissue overuse injuries and good posture can promote shoulder health. Having a set of strong and powerful legs are more vital to the sports performance side of things. This will help a player in any position on the field to be more effective at a particular skill whether it’s running, throwing or hitting or especially pitching.
9. So I always like to have a bit of fun to finish off interviews. Here’s my ‘fun question’ for you today, can you out-squat some of the guys on the team?
Ha! I wish the answer was no! Fortunately, it’s usually the young ones. We have a pretty good lifting culture in this organization, so once they have been here for a few years, they start to pass me up!
10. Rachel, thanks a bunch for taking the time to be with us today, your story is one of a kind. I’m sure there will be some female readers out there - anything you’d like to share with an aspiring female strength coach?
Yes, hard work always pays off. It’s just not always in the time frame you want it to be or in the way that you thought it would. 365 days ago I was working for free at ASU and waitressing! I had been contacted by 5 different NCAA Division I universities who were interested in me working with their female sports in entry level positions. I told each of them no. I didn’t want to settle for a job that I wasn’t excited about. I was confident that the work that I had put in previous to that point warranted an opportunity greater than that. During that year, I had plenty of colleagues, friends and even some of my family say, “Rachel, why don’t you just swallow your pride and take those college job offers?” Well, now I’m saying, “This is why I didn’t just take the job.”
There is no such thing as luck. You are the only person who can determine your future. Since getting this opportunity, I’ve had some people say, “Wow, pays to know people.” Or, “Yea, just in the right place at the right time.” I don’t buy that. I put myself in the right place. I made those contacts and when I did make the contact, I worked my ass off so I would make a good impression and set myself up for further opportunities. I put in the work and prepared myself for the day that I would get this opportunity. When I think about it, I was setting myself up for this 10 years ago when I was the hardest worker on my high school team and then on my college team and then at my internship and then during my masters and then with the Cardinals the first time. This opportunity is not luck. It’s the result of calculated decisions that I’ve made my whole life leading up to this point. Now, no one accomplishes something alone. I could not be here without the Cardinals being willing to take the leap of faith, or without my parents, coaches and mentors supporting me through this process. However, in the end, no one can be blamed for your failures and no one can hand you your success. It is earned.