Former Team Connection Sales Manager, Ikenna Smart, knows exactly how sports can change a life. His incredible story of self discovery and community through his basketball career led him to start his own foundation, donating shoes to those in need in his home country of Nigeria. We asked Ikenna to share with us his thoughts on what it takes to build a winning team culture, and his thoughtful responses are sure to ignite your own Sport Fuels Life passions. 

Please share a story of how sports have positively impacted your life.

As a young man growing up in Nigeria, all I had was hope and my love for sports. I began as a soccer player, kicking anything I could kick without breaking my foot. (That included rolled-up socks, oranges or even empty plastic containers). I did not stop kicking things until my height caught someone’s attention, and I was told to pick up a basketball at the age of 15.  

Basketball came naturally and resulted in an opportunity to move to the U.S. Without knowing anyone or speaking very much English, I moved to Maryland to continue my education and basketball career on an athletic scholarship. Other opportunities in sports allowed me to obtain both bachelor's and master's degrees.  

I came to America without a single relative, but today I'm surrounded by family created through sports. As I moved from team to team, I gained friends and mentors. Through sports, I have learned life lessons and skills, and I have interacted with people across the globe. 

I am the first generation to complete college and to travel to America. My journey illustrates how sports can change a life. 

How would you define team culture, and what are the traits of successful team culture?   

Team culture is the fusion of behaviors, attitudes, values, and beliefs that are lived (in good times and not so good times), by each individual within a team. These attributes function as a system that constitutes a huge part of a team's identity. The culture of a successful team will have positive personal and group characteristics that will enable the team to function and work collectively towards a common goal. Personal goals give way to the bigger team goal.

What role does inclusivity play in building a winning team culture?

Inclusivity is huge. Having everyone understand their role, emphasizing mutual respect, and holding each other accountable are important elements for a winning team culture. When I played in Buffalo, I brought guys to the gym with me. Including them, challenging them, and making sure everyone understood their roles and requirements helped create a positive dynamic.

Can you give an example of how team accountability, communication, trust and conflict resolution improves culture?

In my basketball games, we each knew our role. Everyone was clear on their assignment. For example, if my job was to hold a top player to a certain number of points, I knew what was expected and how it fit into the big picture. We also had an acronym called BCD - no Blaming, no Complaining, no Defending--no BCD. It allowed everyone to take a break and say “my fault” in a positive way. That was due to clarity on roles and expectations.

How does problem solving as a team help the overall collaborative environment?

Problem solving as a team definitely supports the overall collaborative environment. I believe having a set of rules supports the team culture and makes it easier to solve problems. Teams are made of individuals.  We all need a shorthand way of dealing with issues because they come quickly and intensely during competition.  

What are three life hacks for building a winning team culture?

Communicate, collaborate, and care...about each other and about the team. Communication helps a team build trust, collaboration encourages high degree of teamwork and care promotes selfless love. All three carry the spirit of a winning team and its culture.  

Why do you personally believe that Sport Fuels Life?

Sports don't discriminate. Sports don't care about one's race, class, ethnicity or religion. It’s the thing that unites everyone and helps them escape into the open. That’s one of the reasons I established a foundation to send athletic shoes to Nigeria. Teams here often have a surplus. A pair of shoes can make an important difference for a young person who is eager to play, contribute, and grow. I know because it happened to me. Sport has fueled my life.