Kaine Baldwin Essendon

Kaine Baldwin made his long-awaited return to the field on Sunday. Photo: Essendon FC

After two ACL tears and two-and-a-half years away from competitive football, Kaine Baldwin made a triumphant return to the game at Windy Hill on Sunday. It took months of breaking down mental barriers to reach the point of play, he told The Inner Sanctum.

After two ACL tears and two-and-a-half years away from competitive football, Kaine Baldwin made a triumphant return to the game at Windy Hill on Sunday.

In a sign of the times, another mix-and-match scratch-match saw Bombers players throwing on Suns guernseys to make up numbers.

For Baldwin, the haphazard scrimmage was a momentous point in his career that he had been building his body and mind towards.

The 194-centimetre key forward was once rocketing towards stardom as an under-ager. He captained South Australia to the Under 16s State Championship, and was named at centre-half forward in the 2018 All-Australian team alongside six of the top-10 selections in the 2020 AFL Draft.

It took months of breaking down mental barriers to reach the point of playing competitive football again.

“For the lead-in to the praccy I had parents and family that were all pretty excited and nervous – as was I,” Baldwin candidly told The Inner Sanctum.

“It was a pretty draining kind of week in terms of my own mental battles, and being pretty nervous and pretty fearful after being out of the game for such a long time.

“I had a lot of support from our mental coach – our psychologist – Dave Reid, and he did a lot of work with me in the upcoming month. It was all throughout the season actually, just around how to manage those doubts and fears, and how to accept that those fears are going to be there and just trying to play with as much confidence as I could.”

Kaine Baldwin has been building up his training since joining the Bombers.

Baldwin tore the ACL in his right knee in a SANFL Reserves game when he was just 16 years old. Coming back in his top-age year, he was cruelly struck down again with a partial tear to the same ligament.

His extended period out of the game saw him get overlooked in the National and Rookie Drafts.

That second serious knee injury has taken the 19-year-old close to 15 months to come back from, with the club taking a long-term view after taking a chance on him in the Supplementary Selection Period (SSP).

Preparing to play at full intensity is something Baldwin wasn’t able to replicate on the training track. It became imperative that he got his mind focused on the return, even after his knee rehabilitation was complete and he had completed a block of training with the main squad.

“I always had those doubts that I’d kind’ve been in this position before and I’d done a lot of hard work to get back to fitness and then I’d had the same injury recur again,” he admitted.

“But I can confidently say the rehab and the processes I’ve been through this time is comparatively way better than what it was the first time. Just having the support and guidance of all the medical team, and the performance coaches here has made me feel so much stronger and fitter than I was last time.

“As soon as I was out on the ground I was pretty free and confident, especially after I got my first touch.”

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Essendon VFL head coach Leigh Tudor was full of praise for Baldwin’s performance.

“Kaine played the first half and only had one rotation each quarter, so he played a fair bit of game time. He just looked really strong,” he told Dons Digital.

“As a key-position player, his want to defend, tackle and apply pressure in our forward half created two or three goals. His first goal was from a really physical tackle. It was really exciting and the boys were up and about.

“The most impressive thing was his understanding of how we want to play. He’s done a lot of work to get to this point, not just physically but understanding how we play.”

As well as hitting contests with the aggression that made him one of the best prospects of his draft year, Baldwin made it count on the scoreboard with two goals in his half of footy.

The work of Essendon mental skills coach David Reid and the club’s performance coaches enabled Baldwin to put his best foot forward, but his dynamic return to the field was a huge credit to the club’s handling of his contract, which was put to him last week before he had played a game for Essendon.

“They gave me the signing just to allow me to play with that extra freedom and not be worried about re-injury or anything like that weighing on my mind.

“Thankfully I wasn’t thinking ‘if I re-injure it now I might not get a contract’, or ‘this might be the end’ or stuff like that.

“It gave me a lot of confidence as it just instills their faith in me that I’ve done a lot of hard work to get to this point, so to give me another contract before I’d even played – and regardless of how I’d play – was huge for my confidence and I’m really grateful for that.

“Instead of trying to come back and play my best footy I had to accept that I was going to go out there with as much freedom as possible and let go of any expectations or need to perform to a certain level and just enjoy footy again.

“I think that freedom really allowed me to hit the contest hard, and I got a few big tackles which was nice – a few guys probably didn’t see me coming which is lucky. I was just focused on playing, and I really enjoyed it.

Kaine Baldwin in training at the Hangar. Photo: Essendon FC

“I’m willing to hit the contest hard and train at 100 per cent. Games and working at 100 per cent intensity in a high-pressure situation is unlike anything else for your mental sanity, and moving on from injury.”

Baldwin credited captain Dyson Heppell, two-time All-Australian Michael Hurley and experienced forward Devon Smith in giving him the right head space to attack his program at the club.

“I’ve got a lot of guidance from leaders around the club like Dyson and Michael Hurley. They’re people who have really helped me along the last six months or so.

“Dyson and also Devon Smith have been really good for my mental wellness and being able to perform mentally.

“They gave me a few things pre-game, a few little habits and tricks that allow me to play with freedom.”

With the VFL heading straight to a finals series that the Dons aren’t a part of, Kaine Baldwin is expected to play around 70 minutes of another practice match this weekend as he slowly builds towards a full campaign for the Dons in 2022.

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