Press Sport columnist Steph Inglis is a retired judoka who won a silver medal for Team Scotland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Having now retired from the sport, she writes for the Press about the side of being an elite sportswoman that the public doesn’t see, far away from the medals and acclaim of big Games.


A LOT of athletes, coaches and professionals use the iceberg image and metaphor which I am sure we are all familiar with.

Basically, it highlights that we only see what is above the surface, and we do not see or know what lies below. An athlete’s journey can be explained like this.

Above the water, we see the athletes' success or failure, travelling, injury, skills, winning or losing streaks.

Welcome to below the surface: determination, training, motivation, mental health, pressure, anxiety, worry, stress, panic, sleep, nutrition, working, studying, financial burdens, early mornings, late nights, sacrifices and coping with winning / losing / injuries.

I am so grateful to have lived many years as a professional judo athlete, I would not change it and wish I could do it all over again! But being an athlete is stressful, hard, extremely challenging but wonderful all at the same time!

My journey as an athlete was an absolute rollercoaster – lots of highs, lows and a few crashes too. When people think of athletes, they think of someone who is in great shape, fit, healthy, look good so must feel good too right? I would agree to all of this; I never felt better than when I was an athlete, I felt good most of the time I enjoyed my life and loved what I did.

I portrayed that image to ‘non-judo’ friends, social media, reporters and anyone else who engaged in this conversation. My group of close friends were so supportive! I would be preparing for a big competition halfway around the world chasing selections and needing to win fights and medals to reach my goal of being the best, ‘Oh Steph, don’t worry, you’re going to win anyway!’, ‘You’ll win another gold, you’re so good!’.

Outwardly, I would laugh and say no no, these girls are animals and so good! It’s going to be tough (which it always was, I was one of the top players in the UK but on the world circuit I was a small fish).

The physical aspects of what we see or believe an athlete to be is enough for us to make opinions and dismiss the hard work and effort put in. 'Steph you’re so lucky you’re going to another country, always travelling; I wish I could do that!' I absolutely loved travelling, but it wasn’t a holiday! I was going to make weight for the competition and fight, not be a tourist and enjoy a bit of down time!

An athlete’s mental health, daily struggles and sacrifices made are what lies below the surface, and that a lot of people just do not understand. I would wake up most mornings with my body aching, more bruises, tired and desperately wanting a lie-in, but I would be up and getting ready for training (more likely to endure some more bruises and post body aches).

Training full-time is your whole life. I would nap during the day most days –‘Aww, you’re so lucky, wish I could have a sleep!’ – but I needed to do this to allow my body to recover so I could train again in the evening. I would have to plan my meals sensibly; being a weight-controlled sport, I had to be mindful of what I was consuming to maintain weight, and ensure I gave my body all the nutrition needed. Thankfully, I did work with nutritionists to get this right!

Being an athlete is one big sacrifice but, when you fight in that competition, make it onto that podium, have that medal placed round your neck, hear the national anthem, and watch the flags raised in the stadium – it is all worth it!

You forget the pain, torture and a lot of tears that came before that moment. You do not regret having missed that party, coffee date, birthday cake or girls’ trip. This is your life and why you do it, moments like these and pushing on to the next goal, medal, and selection. But then we all see that part! The success, medals and winning streaks!

But we also see the failure and losses. That’s when it gets tough and is mentally draining.

When you don’t reach that medal podium, or exit a competition in the first round, you experience an inward fight with negative self-talk, frustration, telling yourself you are not good enough, debating just quitting and to go and enjoy weekends out and parties with friends. What is the point in committing and sacrificing your whole life when you can’t even win? It’s a vicious cycle and one I have experienced many times, sometimes it lasts the weekend until we return home, others I can be beating myself up about it all week which obviously did not change anything or help me.

The stress of being a self-funded athlete brought even more complications; always fundraising or seeking sponsorship and, when you secure it and that first round exit happens, try telling your sponsor how you went halfway round the world for nothing?

Try having that post-match discussion with your coach to find out what happened, call your parents at home who are excitedly waiting on your update, and then putting up that post on your social media: ‘Not my day today etc etc’.

You feel awful within yourself and suddenly that super-fit, healthy athlete, who looks and feels good, becomes a miserable person who prefers their own company and doesn’t want to do anything. It’s lonely at the top? I could not disagree with this more; at the top, everyone wants to be your friend or part of your journey.

At the bottom, however, I exclude myself from social interactions. My only company is that negative voice in my head – and that’s what I deserve after failing right? It was my punishment.

With more athletes coming out and speaking about their mental health, I think it will be a huge help and encouragement for current and younger aspiring athletes. Sure, the training is tough, which is expected, and you are prepared for, but the sacrifices and dealing with failure is something you didn’t plan to deal with.

Then there are your injuries. Some big, and some minor little niggles, equally as frustrating as the other; missed, or adapted, training sessions; missing competitions and results; falling behind your rivals. How am I going to catch them now and qualify?

I would not change my life of being an athlete and doing the sport I loved for many years. I would, however, change how I spoke to myself.

I would seek help and try hard to kick the negative self-talk as it helped me in no way whatsoever except as a means of chastising myself for losing.

My message I hope you can take away from this small insight to the hidden part of the iceberg is to not be quick to judge people and assume they are always good or happy. We do not know what anyone is going through and dismissing their efforts can be really upsetting as they could have poured so much time, effort and energy into something, and a side remark, ‘See, don’t know why you were worried’, could be a slap in the face, even though it was not intended that way.

Everyone has their own iceberg, trying hard to keep it balanced, and get through everything. Remember that and, when you are struggling below the surface, there are people and support there to help pull you back up.

Be brave enough to seek it and, if that thought causes you anxiety, please try to practise your own positive self-talk and affirmations. When we can change our mind to thinking more positively, we can attract positive things into our lives! I believe it, do you?

If not, try it and see, it’s free and could be the difference that could tip things into your favour.