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The Coaching Dept. Blog

Navigating Death Valley… Thoughts on Traversing Overwhelm

My daughter is in the midst of a two and a half year Master’s program. It’s grueling to say the least. So far it’s been one year of hard work with no significant break. She recently had a conversation with a past graduate of her program who was enquiring as to how she was doing. He asked her if she was in Death Valley yet. “Death Valley?” she asked. He laughed as he explained this concept from the inner circle of veterans who had completed the program.

Death Valley. The place when the honeymoon of the first year is over. It’s hot. So hot it feels like the hottest place on earth. You are exhausted. You need water, nourishment, and rest. You are parched. Everything is depleted. Your brain is overloaded, your body aches, and you have periods of delusion. You question your intelligence, your abilities, and your self-confidence is at an all-time low. You know there is an end in sight, but it’s so far off in the distance that looking for it is useless. Final exams for this semester are right around the corner. You don’t know if you will make it. Survival is your goal. Death Valley.

Although a foreboding name, you’ve likely experienced the phenomenon of some kind of overwhelm, exhaustion, depletion, funk, or burnout. Maybe you are in it now. Possibly someone on your team is in it now. Maybe it’s the middle of your busy season. You and your team are getting tired. A few cracks in the armor are showing. Perhaps you’ve just received news of several team member resignations, or some added expectations from your members. Maybe your team members are asking for time off. They need a break before their college classes start in just a few weeks. The three day member-guest tournament is next week. You are going to be at your club for 72 hours straight and still pick up and drop off your kids from day camp each day and attend a family birthday party.  Your already busy calendar is on overflow. The pressure and the stress are nearing peak levels. Labor Day, where are you? Oh my! Projects, budgets and the holidays are around the corner! Death Valley.

We’ve all been there at some point in life. Although there may be no perfect solution, we all have the opportunity to discover our own way through it. And as leaders, we have the privilege of leading our people through it as well. Here are a few reminders from your coaches to help you and/or your team navigate the valley of overwhelm and exhaustion.

  1. Start With Perspective

    We often share the visual of a very small dark spot in the middle of a large white page. For the most part, our troubles and overwhelm represent the small dark spot. The white space is everything else—the good stuff, the opportunity, the possibility, gratitude, good people, etc. When we focus only on the dark spot, it destroys our energy and makes our world a dark place. I keep a visual representation of this nearby for a reality check. When I am honest—my dark spots are all first-world problems. Perspective.
  1. Set Yourself Up For Success Each Day

    Take five minutes at the beginning of your day to plan a realistic approach for the day. How do you want to show up for yourself and others? What is really most important? What are the one to three things that you must accomplish today? Then at the end of your day, take five minutes and chalk up your wins. What went well? What are you most proud of? We are so conditioned to look for what went wrong. Quite frankly, anyone can focus on what isn’t good. Instead, do a 180 degree shift and look for your wins. You might be surprised how your energy changes when you are noticing what went well in your world today.
  1. Simplify and Eliminate

    On a regular basis do a Brain Dump: write down absolutely everything that is in your brain. Categorize it if that helps. Eliminate the tasks that you really don’t need to be doing. Outsource, delegate, and reorganize. Get rid of the things you are tolerating. Simply put, tolerations zap our energy. As well, make sure to eliminate the clutter in your own mind: the negative thinking, self-deprecating thoughts… you get the idea.

    Next, break tasks into smaller steps: Overwhelming tasks can be more manageable when broken down into smaller, actionable steps. Create a to-do list or use project management tools to organize your workload. Focus on one task at a time, and celebrate small accomplishments along the way. Put these on your daily “wins” list above in #2. This approach can help you feel more in control and reduce the sense of being overwhelmed.
  1. Establish Boundaries

    Most of us, especially in the club industry, are “yes” people. Here’s an idea—Stop being one! Set clear boundaries. Consider your work hours, having some personal time, technology use, workload management, personal space, self-care, and saying “no”. Remember, setting boundaries is a personal process, and it may take time to establish and enforce them effectively. It's important to communicate your boundaries clearly and assertively, while also being receptive to others' boundaries. By setting and respecting boundaries, you create a healthier work and personal environment that promotes well-being and reduces stress.
  1. Explore Stress-Management Techniques

    Practice stress-management techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or mindfulness. You might also try changing your physical environment—go for a walk in nature, find an energizing place or quiet spot so that you can focus on the task at hand. Plan some time to enjoy a hobby or something fun. These strategies can help you relax, reduce stress levels, focus, and increase your resilience in the face of challenges.
  1. Seek Support

    Reach out to trusted coaches, colleagues, friends, family members, or professional counselors for support and understanding. Exercise the courage to be vulnerable. Sharing your feelings with someone who can provide a listening ear, perspective, and ideas can help you move forward.

Remember, addressing overwhelm (and burnout) is a process, and it may take time. Be patient with yourself and give yourself permission to prioritize self-care and well-being. While the metaphor of Death Valley is extreme, its message can offer opportunities for transformation and growth. It challenges us to reassess priorities, set boundaries, refine our time management skills and adopt healthier habits. It also invites us to a new level of leadership—both leading ourselves and leading others in an extraordinary way.

Kevin MacDonald and Shelley MacDougall are the coaches for CMAA. To contact them call 1-866-822-3481 toll free or e-mail or

About the author

Shelley MacDougall

Shelley MacDougall is dedicated to creating leaders in life! Whether she is coaching one on one, facilitating learning for groups, or delivering keynote presentations, Shelley’s dynamic style and compassion for people are undeniable.

Since 2006, Shelley has been coaching CMAA/CMAC and club industry professionals, supporting them to reach new heights in their careers and in life. Along with her business partner, Kevin MacDonald, they have coached and worked with thousands of industry professionals in their combined 30 years of coaching. Their popular program, The Extraordinary Leader Program, continues to develop leaders at all levels of private clubs and beyond.

After obtaining her business degree at The Ohio State University, Shelley has invested the past 30 years in training and leading others. Fifteen years of experience inside the private club and hospitality industries equipped her to venture out to connect with organizations from a different perspective. As a coach, Shelley’s passion is developing leaders and creating cultures of elevated service. You can find more about her work at

Shelley believes that “Success is on the Inside”! She is committed to Elevating Lives and Organizations… Every Connection, Every Conversation, Every Day.

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