Enhancing Youth Football Training with SMARTGOALS: NEC Nijmegen’s Innovative Approach

Young football players training with SMARTGOALS at NEC Nijmegen's academy.

On March 12th, prior to the global halt due to the pandemic, I had the opportunity to implement the SMARTGOALS system at NEC Nijmegen’s youth academy. This article delves deeper into this revolutionary collaboration and how it’s reshaping the way young players train.

The Confluence of Brain and Sport

Over the years, I’ve had enlightening conversations with sports professionals about the intricate link between brain activity and on-field performance. Bas van Baar, formerly with De Graafschap, discussed with me the principle of Deliberate Play – intentional exercises that are both enjoyable for children and serve a hidden objective.

The Journey to NEC Nijmegen

Soon after our conversation, Bas transitioned to NEC Nijmegen’s youth academy. Our professional relationship persisted, leading to multiple training sessions using SMARTGOALS. This season, the association blossomed into a formal partnership between NEC’s youth academy and Sportbrein.


At NEC, SMARTGOALS seamlessly integrates into team training. We typically confer with youth coaches before sessions, tailor exercises based on age and specific trainer requirements, and ensure participation in small rotating groups. While I focus on the multifaceted elements described further below, an assisting coach often emphasizes their weekly training focal points.

Creating Dynamic and Adaptive Training

Using SMARTGOALS, we can simulate a highly dynamic environment reminiscent of chaos training. Players are implicitly taught to make choices in constantly changing scenarios. Training content is crafted keeping in mind both game and brain principles. Coaches often specify areas of focus, ranging from passing drills to outnumbering opponents.

Integrating Brain Principles

In addition to football-specific techniques, I incorporate several brain principles. Consider the concept of inhibition – the ability to delay, slow down, or halt a response. During a SMARTGOALS exercise, I might alter the light signals, requiring players to adapt instantaneously. Such alterations can occasionally lead to player frustration, providing teachable moments about brain functions and self-control.

The Benefits of Reaction Lights in Training

A significant advantage of integrating reaction lights with traditional training is the capability to pinpoint and improve cognitive traits. Aside from inhibition, other cognitive abilities include visual working memory and cognitive flexibility. For instance, in a 5v3 positioning game using four SMARTGOALS, players must continuously store, process, and adjust to changing information. This trains their ability to quickly process and act upon shifting game dynamics.

Bringing It All Together: The Power of SMARTGOALS

Admittedly, complex positioning games and frustration management aren’t new in football. But with SMARTGOALS, we can hone in on specific elements, coaching them more effectively. Depending on the group, age, and skill level, combining expert youth coaching with targeted SMARTGOALS exercises often results in both fun and beneficial training sessions. This union forms the essence of the collaboration between NEC’s youth academy and Sportbrein.

Football training, especially for the youth, is not just about physical prowess but also cognitive development. The fusion of SMARTGOALS with traditional training methods at NEC Nijmegen’s youth academy is proof of the boundless possibilities when innovation meets passion.

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