Why do certain players, teams, and countries excel in sports? Influence. Influence is one of the most important keys in an athlete’s success and maybe the most critical initial factor. In all sports, most upcoming athletes have had role models and great athletes they have looked up to before potentially becoming role models themselves. Greatness isn’t born and it’s first step is that it has to be grown through ignition or an influence. Then only do deliberate practice and master coaching become important. 

There are many examples of sports in countries where there is influence everywhere. You see the sports on TV regularly, your friends and family often play, and you read regularly about the sport online or in the newspapers. Some examples are table-tennis in China, cricket in India, soccer in Brazil and many other countries, and basketball in the US. However, certain athletes have made sports popular or even more popular. 

Most Popular Sports by Country

Color-coded map of most popular sports in the world by country (Courtesy Chartsbin)

The Super Swedes and Sweden’s Table Tennis World Champions Waldner, Persson, and Applegren were influenced by the Swedish generation before them. The 1970s world class Swedes were led by Stellan Bengtsson who was and still is the youngest ever World Men’s Singles Champion by winning in 1971. Stellan, along with Kjell Johansson, and Hans Alser were often on TV in Sweden during the 1970s and the Super Swedes said that generation was a big reason they took up table-tennis seriously.

The Falkenberg drill in table-tennis that is famous and used around clubs all over the world now is named after the city that Stellan lived in and the club he played for, Falkenberg. I was lucky to spend time there on several trips and learned a good deal myself from Stellan. As much as he’s accomplished, he’s extremely helpful to everyone’s game including foreigners who’ve accomplished nothing close to him and he has influenced me positively. He was arguably 5-time World Champion Jorgen Persson’s greatest influence. He coached Jörgen Persson in every match and route to the 1991 World men’s singles championship and coached him regularly in Sweden. Now Persson himself in turn is the Swedish national men’s table-tennis coach right now and coached Mattias Falck to the 2019 World Men’s Singles Final losing only to Ma Long, who along with Waldner, maybe the greatest player of all-time. The High Performance Director for the Swedish Table Tennis Association, Mikael Andersson, stated their goal is to win gold in a major international tournament. Persson said he has a long-term goal to beat China again. Sweden has stayed on the map in table-tennis as one generation has influenced the next who is influencing the next. 

When Michael Jordan was growing up, he and his dad wanted him to be a professional baseball player. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team and wanted to quit playing basketball but his Mom was the influence that changed his life. She told him to work harder so he would get up early in the morning and start practicing more. The rest is history. Then he starred for his high school basketball team and was the hardest working basketball player when he went to college in North Carolina under legendary coach Dean Smith. When he first arrived as a Chicago Bull, he lived a simple life focusing on his own basketball and improving his game. 

After the Bulls became better and better and Chicago was making deeper playoff runs, he held his teammates to his standards. Even if they never actually reached his level, his goal was to get them as close to his level as possible.  He never asked his teammates to do something he didn’t do himself. If he didn’t work hard himself, it would have made no sense for him to hold his teammates to his standard. Michael Jordan made his teammates excel. If you don’t include his two years break from basketball due to baseball, he won six consecutive championships where he played the full season which may never be done again. LeBron James did reach eight NBA finals in a row which is also incredible but did not win all eight. Michael Jordan made basketball popular and caused an explosion of interest.

Michael Jordan was looked up to by the next generation of basketball players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The NBA expanded from 80 countries to 215 countries during the Jordan era so Jordan was key to basketball’s global popularity. Now with Kobe and LeBron becoming top athletes and winning championships themselves, basketball is now the most popular sport in the world by participation with about 450 million participants. Did Michael Jordan’s mom directly and indirectly make basketball the most popular sport in the world by asking him to work harder when he wanted to quit? 

Michael Jordan made basketball popular and influenced the next generation of stars like Lebron James and Kobe Bryant who in turn have helped make basketball the most played sport in the world.

Lebron James and Kobe Bryant were influenced by Michael Jordan and in turn have influenced the next generation to make basketball the most popular sport in the world currently by participation. (Courtesy NY Times)

In tennis, when Anna Kournikova became a Wimbledon semi finalist, she sparked and influenced the next generation of Russian tennis players to take up the sport. Soon they were dominating women’s tennis and at one US Open, 5 of the top 10 seeded women’s tennis players were all Russian. 

I got my spark in table-tennis at age 5 after seeing my dad’s high quality paddle and trophy. During my childhood years, table-tennis was always my passion. After seriously playing a large part of my life, I turned to coaching and organizing. I founded the Cal TTC, Stanford TTC, ICC TTC, Fremont TTA, and the NorCal division of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. Through a little spark at age 5, I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to influence many thousands of players in Northern California to play table-tennis. 

Hard work is critical to an athlete’s greatness in every sport. However, without ignition by influence, there would be no hard work. Influence is the key to build an athlete’s initial drive and motivation in sport.