It’s not often you’ll hear someone utter the phrase ‘one of the best experiences of my life’ when talking about an event from 2020.
But, in amongst all the chaos this difficult year has wrung upon us, Emily Defroand and Tess Howard have indeed been a part of something that has altered their lives for the better.
The Women’s Sport Trust’s #UNLOCKED programme.
Launched in January, the GB Hockey stars joined another 38 elite female athletes to help ‘shape the future of women’s sport’. They were paired with 40 ‘activators’ from a wide variety of industries, including The Telegraph’s Head of Sport Adam Sills, Paralympic legend Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson – now a Crossbench Peer at the House of Lords – and BBC Sport Executive Director Victoria Cotton.
In combination, the aim was to ‘create an unprecedented critical mass of noise and energy to propel women’s sport to the next level’.
“As soon as I saw it, I was like ‘this is a bit of me, I want to get involved’. I just remember thinking I want to be a part of it,” Defroand – who has played 55 internationals for England and GB – recalled in an interview with SportSpiel.
“I can honestly say it has been one of the best experiences of my life. It’s been an absolute honour to be part of the #UNLOCKED programme.
“I’ve learned so much and met so many incredible women, whether that’s athletes or the activators or people from further afield involved in terms of their connection with the Women’s Sport Trust. I can’t speak more highly of the whole programme and those involved with it.”
While the initial five-month plan was scuppered due to the coronavirus pandemic, that didn’t stop the Women’s Sport Trust from pulling out all the stops and still making #UNLOCKED a huge success.
With regular virtual meetings, guest speakers and much more besides, a strong community was quickly established and a collective desire formed; to bring about substantial and lasting change to the way women’s sport is viewed, treated and presented.
Midfielder Howard said: “I think it was probably my social awakening into the community of women’s sport, combining that with gender equality and inclusion and policy change and media training. It was just incredible.
“It’s just so important in today’s society to have this network of people who want to action change. That was the most exciting thing for me.
“They asked us to say three things we wanted to achieve from the programme and I was like ‘how big can I go?’ It’s ignited that spark for doing something to help society.”
As the momentum surrounding women’s sport has grown and its acceptance in general society increased, more and more women have felt comfortable coming out and expressing not only their desire to further this but also calling out those threatening to halt its progress.
One key example of this was the social revolt that led to the #IAmEnough movement when Canterbury used models to promote Ireland’s new female rugby kit, while they used members of the international team to promote the men’s.
But, while there are so many amazing people doing fantastic work to fight the cause for women’s sport, often the approach has felt quite individual.
What the #UNLOCKED campaign has done though is bring together a varied and highly passionate group of women with the power to drive meaningful change as a collective.
As one of the younger members, the opportunity to interact with women who have successfully overcome years of being neglected or ridiculed has given Howard the confidence to speak up and not let the same happen to her or her current counterparts.
“The first thing I learned was that everybody has a voice and it’s your choice how you use it and what you use it for,” the 21-year-old said.
“For me, it meant understanding that other people have used their voices for what they care about and that they’ve put their energy into their passions, not just on the pitch or in their sport but through things off the pitch which matter more.
“The second thing I learned is that there is a network of people waiting to help you. If you are yourself and speak honestly, passionately and articulate yourself well enough they will help make your dreams come true.
“Being connected to this network of people who are actioning things already, that made me see that I had to make what I wanted to achieve or the change I’d like to help doable so you build momentum.”
Not only has #UNLOCKED created a strong group mentality, it’s also provided the individuals involved with the opportunity to reflect on themselves, their actions and what they want to achieve.
“One of the main benefits was finding my purpose,” Defroand explained.
“The very first session at Bisham Abbey, they asked what we wanted to get from the programme. I was sat next to Maddie Hinch and we said ‘that’s the million pound question’. There was just so much we wanted to do.
“But asking that then got me thinking ‘what’s most important to me? What do I want to make a difference in or work towards?’
“There’s numerous things that have happened off the back off my involvement with the #UNLOCKED programme that maybe I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do get involved in or start myself or do previously.
“I found my purpose in terms of what I’m most passionate about and things I really want to implement moving forwards and I think that’s a huge knock-on from my involvement.”
It’s certainly been a fantastic first year but the work is not over yet for this group of athletes or the Women’s Sport Trust. Things are still steadily improving when it comes to women’s sport but there is still a long way to go.
This group of athletes are the first step to creating true gender equality but they need help and support. It’s up to us to join them and do everything we can as we head into 2021.
And with plans mooted for another #UNLOCKED programme to run next year, it seems as though this momentum is only going to keep growing and growing.