Coming out of high school, Ron Smith thought he was destined for a career in journalism. He enrolled at Marquette with visions of becoming a sports writer. But, midway through that first year, Smith dumped a tray of printer ink in a typography class, ruining his clothes in the process. “This isn’t exactly what I expected,” he remembered thinking.
The next day, looking for a new line of study, Smith asked a friend on the bus about his major. The psychology major talked up his program, leading Smith to take an Introduction to Psychology course. “Almost from the first day, I said ‘This is for me.’ I found my passion,” Smith said.
That was 1959. Smith started at the UW a decade later and has remained busy ever since. In the 40 years since, he’s helped UW student-athletes improve performance, worked with professional athletes, and mentored countless students as a Professor of Psychology and the department’s Director of Clinical Training. It’s that dedication that led one student to nominate Smith for a profile in this space.
Smith came to the UW after receiving his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Southern Illinois University. It didn’t take long for Smith to make an impact on the lives of UW students and student-athletes. Early on, he worked with students and studied techniques to help improve performance in the classroom. His research emphasized goal-setting, stress management techniques, and healthy coping skills.
At the time, one of those students played football under legendary coach Don James, who called Smith, interested in what he might do for what he called a “Wednesday All-American.” This player excelled in practice, Smith remembers, but his solid play rarely translated to game day.
James ultimately invited Smith to work with the football team to devise techniques for improving their play and coping with stress. Players and coaches alike reported better athletic performance and mental toughness, Smith said.
Smith published a few articles about his work with the Huskies, leading to a call from Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics. Over the next 12 years, Smith worked with coaches, major-league players and minor-leaguers for the Athletics, Houston Astros, and Seattle Mariners.
Smith worked with players to relax more, develop breathing techniques, and change their thinking to improve concentration. Smith juggled pro sports and the UW, traveling 40,000 miles each summer to work with players and coaches while continuing to teach during the school year. Smith enjoyed pro sports but left after 12 years and focused once again on his work at the UW, co-directing Husky Sport Psychology Services for six years.
Smith has incorporated the work he’s done with athletes, professional and amateur alike, into the classroom. Smith in 1987 began offering a course – Human Performance Enhancement – which teaches psychology skills and supporting studies, so as to enhance performance in all walks of life. The class proved to be so popular, it’s still offered each summer by one of Smith’s former students. It also won him the Intrafraternity Council/Panhellenic Association’s Most Inspirational Professor award in 2011.
Outside of the classroom, Smith serves as the Department of Psychology’s Director of Clinical Training. In the role, he supervises students in clinical practice and research and continues to publish his own work. “I get to have a lot of interaction with absolutely brilliant graduate students. It’s always been a great source of gratification to me to see students develop and grow. I get to have a front row seat for that,” he said.
Smith’s mentorship earned him the 2012 Davida Teller Distinguished Faculty Award in Psychology for Graduate Student Mentoring and Training, as well. The honor reflected Smith’s continued commitment to students, his interest in their success, and his enthusiasm for a demanding job. “That term ‘I never had a job in my life’ just really applies to what I do,” Smith said. “I just thoroughly enjoy it.”