Elite coach and corporate consultant Tim Wakeham grew up in a middle-class family in a small town in Michigan. Very close with his family, Wakeham describes his father as “tremendously loyal” and his mother as having “very high standards.” Wakeham credits his mother’s drive and his younger sister’s belief in him as driving forces in his career, leading him to believe in people just as strongly.
During high school, Tim Wakeham pursued track and field and football and found success in both; he was an all-state pole-vaulter and a football team captain. While earning his Associate’s degree from Suomi College, Wakeham became a volunteer assistant coach to his high school teams, his first leadership experience. With no formal training in the leadership field, Wakeham fell back on clearly communicating the basics, challenging people to reach their potential, and selling them on his sincere belief in them.
Tim Wakeham earned a Bachelor’s degree from Northern Michigan University and a Master’s degree from the University of North Dakota while simultaneously pursuing coaching. He has been fortunate to work at the corporate, armed forces, UFC, NFL, NHL, Olympic, and Power Five collegiate levels.
After mentoring thousands of people, working with hundreds of teams, and acting as a confidant to hundreds of leaders and CEOs, Tim Wakeham was celebrated as a Master Coach in 2010 by his professional coaching organization. He has published over 30 commercial articles, including two national cover articles, three book chapters, and one scientific journal article. He is also an accomplished public speaker, having spoken at over 60 national and regional coaching conferences and clinics around the United States on topics such as elite leadership and impactful communication.
Currently, in his final year of doctoral training for his doctorate in Leadership Psychology with an emphasis on the Neurobiology of leadership, Tim Wakeham spends his free time partaking in adventure travel with his dog, Bo.
We caught up with Tim Wakeham, who spoke to us about the inspiration that led him to a career in coaching and the impact his family had on that.
What inspired you to become a coach and leader?
Much of the reason I was inspired to become a leader was because of my desire to help people. From a young age, I worked hard to know and understand everyone in my life, and few things meant more to me than relationship building. But my decision to pursue leadership as a career did not happen overnight.
After high school, one of my old coaches invited me to assist him as a coach for both sports I participated in, football and track and field. I wanted to give back, so I accepted his invitation and took on a volunteer assistant coach job while earning my Associate’s degree. After this experience, I wasn’t hooked on coaching yet, but I was intrigued. I honestly had little idea what I was doing in regard to leading and coaching high school athletes. I tried to communicate the basics, challenge people to reach my vision of their potential, and sell them my belief in them. Even back then, I would think of customized ways to motivate each person I coached so they would use the information I’d given them.
When I transferred to Northern Michigan University, I stumbled into a gig training the resident boxers at the Olympic Education Center on campus. Working with the United States Olympic Committee and the fighters was a great experience. I improved my cross-cultural intelligence, interpersonal communication, and teaching skills. I was starting to feel a little more confident in my abilities.
I moved to the University of North Dakota to earn my Master’s degree. While at UND, I started copying and reading every study I could get my hands on. It wasn’t long before I quoted studies like a priest quotes scripture. I became committed to learning the craft of leadership and coaching. At this point, I was still unsure if leading and coaching were what I wanted to do as a career.
I began work as the Director of Wellness for the faculty and staff at Michigan Tech University in my hometown. Because MTU did not have a strength and conditioning coach, it was not long before some sports coaches approached me and asked if I would volunteer to train their teams once I got off work. I spent the mornings and days teaching health and fitness to MTU’s faculty and staff. The evenings, nights, and weekends were spent training the Husky’s Men’s Ice Hockey and Men’s and Women’s Basketball teams. At MTU, I started my role as a confidant and consultant for other coaches and leaders. I tried to provide the image of a self-assured optimist. I shared my professional confidence and relentlessly pushed the athletes in their development. A point guard I trained at Michigan Tech once said, “Tim convinces us that we can do far more than our minds believe.”
Because of my experience at Michigan Tech, I started to notice how important collaborative communication, inspirational motivation, knowledgeable teaching, and skillful leading were to the success and failure of teams and individuals.
After my experience at MTU, I knew I wanted to lead.
Tell us about your family and how they impacted your life and career.
My family has. provided the fire in my belly, the wind at my back, the compassion in my heart, and the rugged resiliency in my spirit. My dad was instrumental in fueling my love of sports. He took off from work to travel to every athletic competition I ever had. I remember far away games that were barely able to be played because of rain or snow, but I would always see him standing in the corner cheering me on. He was the only team parent who made it for some of these games. I learned the importance of loyalty and commitment from him.
From my mom, I learned the foundation of leadership and how you need to stay in the fight with your people no matter what. I believe I got my work ethic, toughness, high standards, and attention to detail from her which have significantly impacted my success in my career.
I have felt from early on that everyone needs someone to believe in them when it is their darkest hour and things seem bleak. My sister, Sherry, impacted my career through her unwavering belief in me. No matter what, I could always sense her confidence, and I attribute my ability to believe in people to her.
After twenty years, you left your position as Strength and Conditioning Coach for Olympic Sports in February 2020 amid serious allegations. Can you tell us about the events that led to your departure and what has happened since?
The criminal conduct by Larry Nassar and resulting scandal for MSU’s failures to investigate and protect victims had a far-reaching impact across Michigan State University and prompted a much-needed reevaluation of policies and staffing across the athletic department and campus as a whole.
A settlement fund of hundreds of millions of dollars was established for victims of Nassar. In the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal there was a great deal of concern about even the potential for risk or future litigation and this prompted a strong counter reaction by MSU. Many people from the athletic department and campus lost their jobs as a result. I was one of them because of a Title IX case initiated by a former athlete at MSU with whom I had a consensual romantic relationship, followed by a seven-year friendship built on trust and mutual respect. Over 15 years later, this relationship was re-interpreted and a resolution officer found in her favor.
When you started, was there ever a time you doubted your career choice? If so, how did you handle that?
There have been hundreds of times when I challenged both myself and my career choice.
Even after becoming a leader at Michigan State, I doubted my choice. After all, I accepted a job as the first full-time coach and leader for 550 people across twenty-three different teams. It was a huge endeavor. I had to collaborate with 60 other leaders regarding vision and plans. Not to mention that I had no budget, no staff, a small facility with holes in the floor, and only a tiny portion of the equipment I wanted.
So how did I handle the overwhelm? I slept at the office, took two vacations over my first ten years, and didn’t take a sick day until my 17th year at MSU. Did I have doubts throughout? I did because the situation I put myself in and the demands I was trying to meet were unrealistic.
I bit off more than I could chew, but I willed myself to chew it. I put my head down and committed to doing my best. That’s how stuff gets done. Now, I teach CEOs and leaders to work smarter!