Solving the scientific secrets of sport

By Susan Edmunds

Kerry Spackman has brought his skills home. Photo / Janna Dixon
Kerry Spackman has brought his skills home. Photo / Janna Dixon

Neuroscientist Kerry Spackman has spent years changing the way Formula One drivers, All Blacks and Olympic athletes think. Now, this jet-setting philosopher wants to turn your world on its head, too.

There aren't many members of the New Zealand Olympic team who have been single-handedly responsible for shutting down the Japanese secret police. But Auckland's Kerry Spackman specialises in doing things differently.

The neuroscientist, mathematician and sports psychologist laughs as he recalls the incident. "It was totally by accident."

A week before Spackman landed in Japan in 1990, leftist radicals had fired a missile at the emperor's palace.

"I arrived with a whole lot of secret-squirrel electronics, not realising they were going to interfere with the police's electronics, because no one knew what frequency they used. In the middle of the night, they stormed our room and arrested us all."

Spackman is resigned to the fact that more excitement like that, which happened while he was working for Ford training test drivers, is unlikely in his new life. He has traded his British base for a much quieter home in Kumeu, on the outskirts of Auckland.

He is single and has a son, daughter and grandchildren. And he says they were what brought him home to New Zealand four years ago.

He had been working on electronics and driver training at the McLaren Formula One team and says the change of pace when he arrived in New Zealand was a shock. "McLaren had a massive budget and in England the culture is amazing. There's always something going on. In Auckland, there's not so much of that."

But he wanted to do something more than just make a lot of money. Since arriving home, he has become involved with the New Zealand Olympic squad, working on a programme called GoldMine, partly funded by the Government and partly by Stephen Tindall.

It uses the electronics and mathematical equations that Spackman honed in his years with F1 teams to get top results from our top athletes.

"We're lifting the hoods of the athletes. For example, cyclist Ali Shanks. What goes on inside her, and how does that work with other athletes?"

He develops software that looks at the challenges of each sport, such as aerodynamics in cycling, measures changes made by coaches and tracks what difference they make. "It was regarded with a bit of suspicion at first but the athletes can see the benefit."

It's work that has come a little bit late, though. The US and Britain have huge budgets, Spackman says, and our work has started seven or eight years after theirs. But he says it is getting results, although exactly what they are is still confidential. He'll be on the sidelines at the Games to see them first-hand.

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Modern athletes could take some tips from Scottish racing driver Sir Jackie Stewart, who first got Spackman involved with F1. Spackman says Stewart was a perfectionist and one of the top sportspeople of his time, but he always found time to talk to people.

"One time we were walking along a race track and a little boy came up to him to ask for an autograph. I knew he was really busy with meetings and things but he took the time, knelt down, signed the autograph and talked to the boy about what he wanted to do when he grew up."

Another time Stewart stopped to talk to a cleaner he'd not seen for a year, to ask how her husband had recovered from a health scare.

He says some New Zealand athletes could take some tips from Stewart.

"I think if someone performs well for the team, but is a bad influence in general, they should be taken out."

The move home also allowed him to work on his latest book, The Ant and the Ferrari.

In 200 pages, it traverses everything from the origins of the universe to quantum mechanics, the flaws in the story of Genesis and the inevitable fall of capitalism. Spackman says it's about truth. Finding the absolute truths of the world is something he has been obsessed with since he was a little boy. "I've always had a passion or truth. That's the most important thing."

The book is relentless in highlighting the logical flaws in religious beliefs and, already, Spackman has been contacted by two fundamentalist Christians who say it has changed the way they think.

In the same way that he uses electronics and maths to hone sports performance, he picks apart beliefs and ideas. Evolution is proved in CSI terms; the idea the universe was created in six days is debunked as if it were on Mythbusters.

Spackman says he's hoping to be able to be able to shape policies and ideas on a more global basis in future.

"Most of us go through life going to work, coming home, watching the rugby. We are ants skating on the surface, unaware of the engine underneath. I talk about using maths to lift the hood of the universe."

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THE ANT AND THE FERRARI
(HarperCollins, $34.99)

Life after death

Spackman compares the brain and soul to his favourite motorcycle, the world's fastest street bike, the Suzuki Hayabusa. "Whenever I turn the engine on I sense a mysterious thing I've decided to call the 'sound' of the bike, and whenever I turn the engine off this mysterious phenomenon called 'sound' stops. Now this is all rather strange because my bike is made out of carbon fibre and exotic alloys and yet the sound I hear clearly isn't made out of any of these things." He says there's no definition of what a soul is. If it's what exists when the body shuts down, people who have had a general anaesthetic know there's nothing there.

Capitalism

Years ago, there used to be lots of bakers baking bread; now there is one big factory. It gets things done more quickly, but when the power goes out it all falls over."We are heading in entirely the wrong way in society. The focus is on efficiency but as things get more complex, they become more fragile."

Ethics

With the decline of religion, no one is being taught ethics any more. "You come out of school not fit for society." An "every man for himself" mentality might be good for business, he says, but it means it doesn't take much for the fabric of society to fall apart. Television is part of the problem, he says. "By the time the average American child reaches the age of 8 they will have seen 8000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on TV." We should be looking for heroes who can be held up as good people.

Destiny

Spackman can't see why people think a life designed by God is more satisfying than one tailormade by them. There are flaws to the idea that whatever happens was "God's plan". "If someone steals my money and this leaves me on a path which produces the exact same amount of 'bestness' in my life and which takes me to the same destiny, why should we punish anyone?"'

- Herald on Sunday

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