Keys to Empathetic Leadership with Erin Smith

Keys to Empathetic Leadership with Erin Smith

- Rachel Sovka

If there’s one place you do not want to be it’s looking into the eyes of Erin Smith across a volleyball net. You’re likely to get seriously stuff blocked. On the contrary, if there’s one place you’d want to be, it’s across from Erin Smith, chatting in a coffee shop. She’s sweet, genuinely interesting to learn from, and will make you laugh the more she opens up.

It wasn’t until Erin Smith stood up at the end of our conversation I realized why she’s a middle blocker and team captain of the Saint Mary’s University women’s volleyball team.

After our delightful chat drew to a close and we arose to leave, I suddenly felt very short.

Although Erin towered over me as she held the door, neither her height nor her personality come across as imposing. She’s a tough, 6’4” athlete, who makes it a priority to ensure no one on her team feels small, building up the confidence of less experienced players.

In her fourth year at SMU, Erin has taken on a somewhat maternal role in nurturing younger athletes and negotiating team tensions in a group with a higher than normal amount of second year athletes.

Volleyball is a sport where team cohesiveness is paramount to success, and lucky for them, Erin is an especially diplomatic negotiator.

“I’m almost too diplomatic,” Erin laughs, “I have to find balance between taking a stand on the court and empathy toward the girls.”

Empathy, a gift that’s served her well on the volleyball court, is something she’s had from a young age being what she calls “the worst ‘but-why? kid’ ever, always having to understand why and how things worked”.

Now, as a student in forensic pathology she requires the same human groundedness to face the difficult subject matter in her line of study.

If it’s her inquisitiveness as a child that piqued her interest in forensics, then it’s likely her empathy for helping people and resilience as an athlete that has kept her on that career path.

“In studying autopsies it’s often disheartening to know humans have the capacity to do horrible things,” she says about studying crime, “but the opposite is also true; I’m inspired by people who work their whole lives to free innocent people and do good.”

“It’s a study that can bring closure to families who’ve lost loved ones,” Erin explains, “I’m not the one who lost somebody, the least I can do is graciously find answers.”

After describing her knowledge of forensics she’s quick to explain that’s she’s not a CSI agent.

“I hate it when people ask me that,” she says, “sure, I wish I could just take off my sunglasses, deliver a one-line zinger and solve the case, but it’s not that easy!”

She tells me the problem with judicial systems and humanity in general is the abundance of grey areas. Which is why she looks forward to one day taking the stand in a courtroom and presenting unbiased evidence in the pursuit of justice.

Erin says her studies have helped her approach many things in a more neutral way. It’s changed the way she thinks as a negotiator and as an athlete, especially in a team sport.

“There are all sorts of personalities on any given sports team, women’s volleyball is certainly no exception,” she says.

“Things are always better when the team supports each other on and off the court, and volleyball has played a huge role in my university experience because your first friend group is your team,” she adds, “We spend a lot of time and shared space together in training and travel, so that’s a lot of limb in one hotel bed if we didn’t get along!”

One of the most important lessons she’s learned about this is managing her own personal thoughts and inner dialogue as to not affect the team or her own performance.

“You have to break the cycle of negative feelings,” she says, “mental compartmentalization is not easy to do, but it’s something you learn with sport. You have to catch negative thought spirals in the moment or you start to ruminate and that never ends well.”

Mental mastery is but one of a litany of lessons Erin has learned in her volleyball career. Starting volleyball at a young age, she’s had time to.

“It all started at a multi-sport camp in middle school,” Erin begins, “I tried soccer but I’m not a huge fan of running, I tried basketball but I wasn’t coordinated enough, but when I tried volleyball I thought, ‘now this I can do!”

Erin made the team and sat on the bench at first which didn’t bother her in the least because she never expected to be on the starting lineup.

“I was so enamoured with the sport I didn't mind,” she gushes, “I got to watch and learn for a while; that’s something I try to do even today, years later, during the times when I'm not part of the action.”

In today’s reality however, Erin usually is part of the action. Her position on the Huskies as middle blocker is a lot of work and she’s involved in almost every play.

Erin says that’s the biggest challenge; in any 15-20 second rally she’s constantly jumping and flailing to defend the court the entire time. This requires good reaction time, aim, and some seriously springing legs!

“Sometimes I feel like I’m just in the way,” she jokes about her position, “people collide with me and they're the ones who fall down. I’m always asking them ‘how’s gravity treating you?’”

You can’t miss Erin on the court, not because of her height, but because of her heart and incredibly empathetic leadership style.