Time Out: July 29, 2009

“How are your guys doing?”
The question was directed my way by Houghton College men’s basketball coach Brad Zarges. Flawlessly playing the role of host, Zarges was eager to learn how the Andes team was doing at the Houghton Team Basketball Camp. Knowing Andes was a late fill-in replacement team and by far the smallest of 16 boys’ teams at the camp, Zarges wanted to be sure things were going well.
I responded that things were positive. We were housed in campus townhouses that offered incredible accommodations. The environment was friendly and helpful and the food was excellent. When the conversation turned to our abiliy to compete, I informed Zarges that we were hanging tough. Although we had lost all three games on the first day, the games were competitive and the score differentials only 10, five and two points. I mentioned that one of my goals at the camp was that we learn to play a more aggressive style of basketball and one that included man-to-man defense. I explained that our guys had shown great growth in a short time and demonstrated they had what it takes to play solid defense. Our problem was in developing the mental toughness to play at that level all the time. At present, I added, we only played with the style and intensity we would need to be successful in Delaware League play in certain situations or contexts.
Zarges smiled. At Houghton College, we call that ‘selective participation,’ the Highlander coach explained. “In everything in life, people select the level of participation and the attitude and intensity they bring to whatever it is that they do,” he added.
Zarges went on to share insights about his team’s biggest star, Yannick Anzuluni, a senior who was selected as the first All-American basketball player in the history of the school. According to Zarges, when Anzuluni arrived in Houghton he suffered from ‘selective participation’ and failed to focus on every part of the game. Each year, Zarges added, Anzuluni has increased the percentage of practice and preparations time where he ‘selects to participate.’ Entering his senior year, Zarges noted Anzuluni selects to participate nearly 100 percent of the time.
The statistics bear out Zarges observations. In announcing Anzuluni’s selection as an All-American, the Houghton College basketball office reported the three-year Highlander starter’s statistics improved each season in several categories; total points, total rebounds, defensive rebounds, blocked shots, and free throw percentage. Anzuluni’s rebound and steal total were tops in the American Mideast Conference. Gradual and sustained improvement of this kind is almost always a sure sign of improved selective participation.
As the week of camp unfolded, I found myself thinking often of the Houghton College phrase Zarges uses to gauge overall focus, attitude and intensity. To my way of thinking ‘selective participation’ is a simple way to describe a complex theme. Its application goes far beyond the world of basketball.
Consider success in any field. Let’s use academic success as an example. Nothing makes my blood boil more than to walk in a classroom and see a student with their head on a desk. In that case, the student has chosen or selected not to participate. There can be a myriad of reasons that influenced the student’s choice. But, make no mistake about it, the student chose to place his or her head on the desk, not the teacher, not their parents, not their peers.
Contrast that with a student sitting ramrod straight, listening attentively, taking notes, referencing those notes the first opportunity to do so after class and so on. This student has chosen to selectively participate at full throttle in his or her academics. Applied over time, these choices will yield vastly different outcomes.
Helping people make better choices that move students or workers or participants of any kind toward 100 percent selective participation is the essence of leadership. Good leaders have the capacity to help those they lead do their best work.
The more I consider the idea of selective participation the more I like it. No matter what the field or the pursuit, when put to the test, the application of more and more selective participation is a surefire recipe of success.