Formula One Psychology


Formula One championship leader Lewis Hamilton may be the man driving the McLaren car to victory, but it’s a New Zealander who has orchestrated that success through Hamilton’s brain.

Auckland-born neuroscientist Dr Kerry Spackman has been working with Hamilton since 2004. Based in London, Spackman provides a programme for the world’s elite athletes which goes further than traditional sports psychology….

“Every athlete is a complete individual and I try to treat the athlete as a whole, which encompasses every aspect from physiology, psychology, history, philosophy, the whole lot.”

He provides an athlete training techniques based on neuroscience research, and a detailed understanding of how individual modules in the brain function.

Spackman combines the athlete’s brain functions with the highly-technical physics, mathematics and biomechanical demands of the athlete’s sport to foster a workable programme.

A lot of his work is data orientated, especially with race-car drivers.

“We analyse every aspect of the driving. All the different types of solutions that would occur for all the different types of vehicle set up. Trying to work out what are the likely scenarios and what you would do to work around any problem. You then try to get all those solutions into the driver’s brain so that they are automatic, not conscious, so he can access them without thinking about them. So there’s a real technical aspect to it in terms of his psychological state.”

In the late 80s, Spackman was analysing experimental vehicles for the Ford motor company, but he discovered that the drivers of the test cars were all driving them differently, making his job impossible.

A meeting was called to iron out the issue, where three-time Formula One champion Jackie Stewart was present and endorsed what Spackman was saying from the collated data.

Stewart ordered that a blind test be set up to see how good each test driver was at doing their job. Stewart took the test as well.

“They all scored 0 and he (Stewart) scored 100 per cent. So then the question was, `What makes him so good?’.”

Stewart asked Spackman to put together a programme to help understand and train professional test drivers, so Spackman enrolled in a psychology degree at Waikato University to study what goes on inside a driver’s brain. He then made the transition to the McLaren team and began offering his programme.

Word spread of his success with Formula One drivers, prompting interest in his services from athletes in other sports.

“What is common is the need to perform under pressure, to get the very best result out of that.”

He has tailored programmes for individuals competing in track and field, rowing, canoeing, tennis and golf. He has also applied it in team sports like football and basketball.

The individual programmes he provides are not based solely on sports performance. Spackman also places a strong emphasis on improving the athletes’ personal lifestyle and increasing their happiness, “so that they don’t only win on the field, but off the field in life”.

He maintains a life-long relationship with athletes who have completed the programme, acting as a resource.

Part of that relationship is about being available to help an athlete at any place, at any time. Even if the athlete is in a state of panic, in a different country and it is 3am.

“One guy called me on the start line at the five-minute board of a superbike race. He had a problem and wasn’t happy about it and wanted to work it out.”

Only about half-a-dozen athletes are enrolled in the programme at the moment as Spackman focuses on launching a book based around his programme’s principles, which will be released in April next year.

After 20 years of implementing his programme with the world’s most elite athletes, Spackman plans to move back to New Zealand.

“I would like to move back and live in New Zealand. I’ve done my time in Formula One now, I’ve done enough,” he said.

” I’m looking towards moving back to New Zealand and seeing if I can help here at some stage.”

The above article appeared on Stuff, a New Zealand site. Here’s the link to the article.

2 thoughts on “Formula One Psychology

  • May 24, 2010 at 12:02 am

    Psychology is one of the most interesting branches of science because there are so many unknowns.`*-


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