Boardroom insights from 10 years with a professional sports team

Peter Abraham
6 min readMar 7, 2024


Krissy Gear and Abby Nichols in Flagstaff’s Buffalo Park. Photo Alison Markham

I’ve been on the board of directors of the HOKA NAZ Elite pro running team since its inception 10 years ago. It’s been an enormously rewarding endeavor for me personally. As I’ve written before, I love mentoring the athletes there, and more recently I’ve taken on some strategic projects, like helping to hire our new coach, and working with Executive Director Ben Rosario to craft an updated mission statement. When done right, hiring and strategy can positively impact an organization for years.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way:

Krissy Gear’s inspiring steeplechase finish to win the 2023 national championship

Build a Foundation

As I have advised many businesses, start with a point of view. For most organizations I deal with, at any level, I want to know two things: 1. what they do, and 2. how they do it. Put more simply, “Why should I buy your product?” In the case of a professional running team, I’m thinking about this with respect to three key stakeholders: 1. Athletes, 2. Fans, and 3. Sponsors. Each of these groups deserves an answer to that question. Athletes need a reason to compete for NAZ Elite at a time when there are more pro running teams than at any other time in recent memory. There’s On Athletic Club, Team Boss, Bowerman Track Club, Brooks Beasts, Hanson’s Brooks, Puma Elite Running, Tinman Elite, Dark Sky and more. Fans also want to know what’s in it for them. Why should they follow our team and not one of the many others? It’s not a zero sum game — people could follow many pro running teams and athletes — but all of us have only so much time to devote to following sports. Lastly, our sponsors, led by Hoka, want to create and monetize a community with us. Does our fanbase align with theirs? Does our mission & purpose match up with those of our sponsors? Is Hoka the right partner for us or just a running shoe brand that writes us a check? After 10 years with the team, I can answer that having an operating principle and viewpoint has definitely helped build a stronger relationship with each of these stakeholders.

NAZ Elite has always understood of the importance of having a purpose. I’ve written before about our previous mission statement: Train hard. Race fearlessly. Share every part of the journey. Ben and I worked on that language in 2015, just after the team was launched. While that purpose has served us well, the world has changed a lot since we came up with it. 2015 was a much simpler time in terms of social media, branding and storytelling. Ben and I decided that, in 2024, it makes sense to take some of the “share the journey” part of the job off of the athletes’ plates. There are just so many media channels right now, and so many ways for an athlete to tell a story. It is not realistic to expect a pro athlete to be great at the sports part of their job and also excel at storytelling. The team can handle some of that by partnering with talented storytellers. In addition, the competitive bar for all athletes is set very high these days, and their days are incredibly busy with the job of getting better & faster at running. So Ben and I, along with input from our coaching staff and some of the athletes, put together a revised mission statement:

Helping athletes achieve their goals with a human-centered approach to high performance, and elevating our communities through sharing and interacting.

The three key elements here are 1. “Helping athletes achieve their goals,” 2. “…a human-centered approach” and 3. “…elevating our communities.” We feel these accurately describe how we do things and why NAZ Elite is different from any other pro running team. We kept “sharing” in the mission — that is important to us — but it is somewhat de-emphasized compared with the original mission. We’ll still use our original language — Train hard. Race fearlessly. Share every part of the journey. — as a tagline when needed, but we’ve moved on to our updated mission statement.

Assistant Coach Jenna Wrieden, Olin Hacker and new Head Coach Jack Mullaney

Coaching Matters

Last summer we set out to hire a new head coach for the team. I participated in zoom and in person interviews of many coaches. While the search was heating up, I also started paying attention to coaches in other sports. Which coaches seem to resonate (and win) with 25 year old athletes in 2023? I’ve watched the enduring excellence of Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, the end of Bill Belichick’s long tenure at the New England Patriots and college football legend Nick Saban coaching his last game at Alabama. I’ve spent a lot of time with UCLA gymnastics coaching legend Valorie Kondos-Field and learned tremendously from her. I also watched the business world and reflected back on different leaders I’d worked for. There is a generational shift going on, not just in the coaching ranks but also in the young athletes (and employees) who play (and work) for those leaders.

I believe communications skills and EQ are the new “secret weapons” of coaching. Many of the traditions of coaching (and leadership in general) — the Xs and Os if you will — are now publicly available to anyone on the internet. Take running for example: one can learn pretty quickly about any kind of training program, running technique and altitude coaching all on YouTube alone. There are thousands of videos there devoted to these topics. What is harder to develop are the “soft skills” of inspiring others, communicating clearly and connecting emotionally with athletes. While you can also learn about these things online, they take experience, practice and the right personality to master. These are the tools great coaches are using to win in 2024 and beyond. After a long search, NAZ Elite hired former University of Portland assistant Jack Mullaney as our new Head Coach. He exhibited all of these positive attributes in the interview process, and I’m very excited to collaborate with both Jenna Wrieden and Jack. They bring different but complimentary skillsets to the team.

The full team (minus Matt Baxter, Futsum Zienasellassie and Paige Wood) at the 2023 holiday party

Positive Energy is Contagious

In early December I traveled to Flagstaff, as I have many years, for the team holiday party. I’ve learned that, if you pay attention, you can feel the positive or negative group energy as soon as you walk in the door. We were all together in a fairly confined space, and I was able to bounce around and chat with all of our athletes. There were some that I had never met in person. First of all, it was great to connect with everyone. But more importantly, I was immediately aware of the overwhelmingly positive energy in the room. You could just feel it. After leaving Flag the next day and traveling back to LA, I wondered if there would be a connection between the energy I had felt and performances & results in upcoming races. Does a powerful, but hard to objectively measure, team foundation result in stronger individual races for the athletes?

Adrian Wildschutt wins the 5000 in 12:56 at the BU John Thomas Terrier Classic. Photo Citius Mag

It’s too early in the season to conclusively answer this question. But if the initial team results are any indication, I would answer with a resounding “yes.” We’ve had excellent finishes in XC (sending Abby Nichols and Ahmed Muhumed to World Cross Championships as part of Team USA in Serbia) and indoors (Adrian’s 12:56 5000 race in Boston and Olin Hacker’s 5th place finish at World Indoors). If these races are any indication, it’s hard not to get excited about the rest of not only this year, but many years ahead.