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The Strom List: Interview with Rachel Balkovec

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Going deeper into theories and some stories of Strom!

As you guys may remember, during the research on the list of Brent Strom’s Go-To Experts, we came across Rachel Balkovec. At the time, there were mentions to her work at Driveline Baseball and some of her research, but there was less published work (which we found out is intentional). We were fortunate to have the opportunity to interview her and get to know her story, her background with Strom, and more.

When asked about her experiences with Brent Strom, Rachel reminisced to first starting in the industry. Strom was the pitching coordinator with the Cardinals, and she speaks of him as an amazing mentor during this time. One of the touching stories was when she first went to make her introduction to the team, as the first female training coach.

After her introduction, one of the coordinators said, alright we need to talk about this. He started talking about how they wouldn’t be able to have cursing in the weight room, and how she could cause problems. The uneasy conversation that you hope doesn’t go on behind a persons back was unraveling in front of her. She just put her head down, admittedly more concerned that her cursing would be more likely to offend the players than the other way around.

Strom interrupted, stating “Jesus, you’re making me blush.” Telling everyone to stop, move on and that she would be fine. When he spoke, everyone else shut up, the conversation ending right there.

Every game she could, she’d go sit in the bullpen. He was always coaching players, but he was also coaching her. “He just can’t help himself. He’s a teacher, he’s a coach. He just wants to give the information he received. He’s this constant, evolving human being with a never ending desire to learn.”

She speaks fondly of him. “He was one of my first and strongest supporters. When a guy like that gets up in the room on my behalf, everyone shut up.”

Now, Rachel’s career has continued to skyrocket, but she was humbled to hear that Strom put her on the list of her top go-to people. Unlike a lot of the people named on Strom’s list, Rachel has worked directly for teams, so less of her theories are public. Even now, a lot of her work is covered by NDA’s with teams, but we were able to gleam a few glimpses into her work.

She mentioned that both Brent Strom and herself have had quite a few philosophical discussions about Frans Bosch Dynamic Systems Theory. In a simplistic explanation, it’s looking at the body as a system and how it interacts with the environment. Utilizing that as a coach on how to shape the environment to change the behavior. In order to change their approach, instead of stating hey, work on this - they look to environmental forces that can help shape that change.

In a real life examples, she mentioned when a pitcher is identified with an issue with flying out early, utilizing weighted balls or bricks, not just to throw the ball harder but a change in mechanics. With a weighted ball or brick, your body naturally responds by changing the path in your delivery. So a pitcher with issues on early flyout, with a heavy ball in his hand, starts naturally building the corrected path. With time and repetition, it can eliminate the issues.

For a pitcher with flexibility issues, instead of telling the pitcher to work on that, they would incorporate an external object like a rail behind them. They rotate and flex backwards to touch as they’re going through the pitching motion. He’s automatically going to have the goal of touching that object and ultimately achieve the added flexibility and rotation necessary.

Rachel’s degrees in human physiology and biomechanics come in handy daily, citing that while plenty of people have a feel for playing baseball, most people still don’t have any idea what is occurring inside the body to optimize the results.

While most of her work is not known, I was able to find out that she did eye tracking research during her time at Driveline Baseball. She expanded that it became a huge part of her philosophy of perception to action, and processing what the hitter is actually seeing. It’s been proven that most hitters aren’t actually watching the ball hit the bat. Part of her research helped evaluate the hitters perception, reaction, and way their body interacts looking for weaknesses. She believes this is one of the next cutting edges in baseball, with many teams in a similar position from a conditioning standpoint, the brain is the next frontier.

If this sounds familiar, it’s likely because one of the other names on Strom’s list, Eric Cobb, has dedicated his entire firm to this type of research. When I let her know Eric was also on the list, she laughed. “Ohh, what a list. Strommy is just so out there and fringe that his list of people is just so different than anyone else.”

She paints the picture of Strom as a scientist with a belief in the cutting edge. She talks about how this separates him from most coaches who fall into a lull, sticking into the tried and true. Strom is always on the bleeding edge, never afraid to question what he believed two minutes ago.

She talked a lot about how Strom gives back, from overseas coaching, to participating in things such as Pitching Palooza and other interviews. Most people believe they can’t give their secrets to success away. She said Brent is the opposite, he’s going to teach and share them all. She doesn’t believe Strom can help himself, always striving to learn more and share what he has learned.

When asked about resources she’d recommend for coaches looking to gather more information, she highly praised Driveline Baseball, and “five years worth of blogs”. Stating that Driveline has nearly 500 videos that nails the content. Highlighting that everything they do is highly researched and reads like an academic research paper, performing their work testing with high level players.

One of the other areas that Rachel highlighted is how impressed she was with Brent’s passion for his player’s success, which brought us into a great conversation about her time with the Astros in Latin America.

Hearing her talk about her time there was touching. She talks about working with very young players, who have never played on a team before, with their time in baseball focused on showcases. The players are raw - emotionally, physically, and mentally. She stepped in to provide accountability and coaching to the players, which often initially creates conflict.

She talked about the relationships she developed with players from Latin America, and tells the story of a player who hated her when they first started. On the day of our interview, she received a breaking news text that her “son” was a major leaguer, with the agreement I wouldn’t make mention of it until he was officially in the majors.

MLB: ALCS-Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Enoli Paredes, hated Rachel when she first started coaching him, a tough kid, who would go “rounds” with her. Amazingly, their relationship has so dynamically shifted from contentious battles to him actually naming his daughter, Emily Rachel, after her, and they jokingly refer to each other as Mom / Son.

She talked through the challenges that Latin American kids face, that aren’t the same for US players. If they fail, there’s no back-up plan. Adding a larger element of pressure, to fresh raw players. So seeing them succeed, is extraordinarily rewarding. “It’s an incredible gift. It’s good just to be part of their lives in that way.”

On top of her work with players, Rachel has started a mentor group for woman. Often receiving the same question from women, she built a support network offering her help walking through exercises, building a resume and cover letter, negotiating, building a brand, as well as just being a sounding board.

While she seems to be giving back in a ton of ways to the community, during COVID she has taken it to another level. She started a GoFundMe, personally donating as well as joining podcasts, interviews, etc for a donation that goes 100% to charity.

I couldn’t be more thankful for the time Rachel spent talking with us. Giving us insight into some of the cutting edge research, reliving some of the great stories about Brent Strom and her time in Latin America.