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Soccer Tic Tac Toe Drill: What Is It And How To Do It

Soccer Tic Tac Toe Drill: What Is It And How To Do It

With an estimated 240 million registered players worldwide, soccer is the most popular sport on earth, by some distance. The game is played everywhere from Rio to Rome, Cairo to Kabul. In each major footballing nation, fans and players of the sport have developed their own distinct culture around the game, as well as individual ways of playing it. It's this diversity that makes soccer so interesting for many.

Over the years, a wide variety of different games and warm-up drills have been developed by coaches across the world, as a means of opening up the sport to new people and training players in fun, dynamic ways that help boost engagement and relate the sport to other areas of life. In this article, we're going to be discussing one such drill that is often used to liven up a training session and keep players on their toes: tic tac toe.

We'll explain what a tic tac toe game in soccer involves and why it has been embraced by coaches across the world, particularly at youth level. After providing you with an in-depth guide to how to play footy tic tac toe, we'll finish up with a brief explainer on how this drill fits into the wider world of the soccer warm-up, and we'll share why completing a proper warm-up before a match of training session is so important.

The Role Of Games In Soccer Coaching

Soccer training sessions can be hard work. During pre-season, when players are required to drag themselves back up to peak fitness after a few weeks off, there will typically be lots of hard running and physical work. Equally, mid-season coaching sessions will be designed to make players sweat and ensure that they can perform at full pelt for 90 minutes on matchday without running out of energy.

In order to break up a training session into lighter, more manageable sections and make the periods of intense physical exertion more palatable, it's key that coaches are able to switch things up and introduce games and activities into their sessions. Coaches such as Arsene Wenger have received lots of credit over the years for helping transition English professional football toward sessions that favour lots of short, intense drills, exercises and activities; by regularly switching things up and completing a wide variety of different drills and games over the course of a couple of hours, it's much more likely that you'll keep players engaged and focused at all times.

There are a wide variety of different activities that can be used to achieve this goal, from prop-based games inspired by different sports such as 'Football Tennis' to dribbling games like 'Robbers'. One extremely popular drill that's designed to keep players on their toes and add some variety to a session is soccer tic tac toe.

What Is Soccer Tic Tac Toe?

Tic Tac Toe (also known as noughts and crosses) is a globally-played game that has been around for thousands of years. It's really simple; two players take turns to place their markers in empty squares in a 3 x 3 grid, with the first player to complete a line of three (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) winning the game.

Soccer Tic Tac Toe replicates this ancient game in a football setting. The group of players will be split into two teams of equal numbers, and they will take it in turns running from a designated spot to a grid of cones, where they will then place down a marker (usually a bib, with a different colour for each team) on one of the cones.

Once they've placed their bib down, the player must sprint back to the starting point, tagging in the next player in line when they get back to the front of the queue. The first team to successfully mark out a line of three bibs wins the game, and the losing team will often be given a forfeit (such as press-ups or laps of the pitch).

One important rule to remember is that a team cannot connect the three cones closest to their position. If a line of three bibs has not been marked out after three attempts, the fourth player on a team is allowed to move one of the previously-placed bibs to a new location on the grid in order to complete a line.

To help flesh out how this drill works in practice, the next section of this article will focus on providing a few pointers on exactly how to set things up on the training pitch.

How To Set Up A Tic Tac Toe Drill

In order for a drill to work properly, the coach needs to be confident implementing every stage of the exercise and answering any follow-up questions that players might have. Tic Tac Toe is a relatively simple soccer drill, but it's important that managers know how to set things up so that players can get as much as possible out of this activity. Here's how to play tic tac toe:

  • First, divide the players into two equal groups and get each group to stand in a line behind a starting point, marked out using a cone. 
  • Hand a training bib to the front three players in each line. One team should all be given one colour bib, and the other team should have a different colour.
  • Next, set up the Tic Tac Toe grid. Effectively, this should be a grid of 9 squares marked out using 9 cones, with each cone roughly 3 yards apart. The grid should be around 10 yards from the starting point, with each team getting an equal-length run to the grid. 
  • Once everything is marked out and the rules have been explained to the players, you're ready to go. Blow your whistle and let the race to fill out the grid begin! Easy enough, right?

While Tic Tac Toe is all about bringing a bit of fun to a training session, it's worth pointing out that this game isn't just used by youth team players. In recent years, videos have been posted online of some of the best soccer players in the entire world enjoying this light-hearted training format. For a good example of this, check out the below video of Barcelona stars such as Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets completing the drill at high speed. This gives an indication of just how beneficial this training device can be...


The Benefits Of Soccer Tic Tac Toe

We've already touched on one of the key benefits of tic-tac-toe: to break up a training session and add a bit of fun, light-hearted activity that gets players excited and contributes towards team bonding. Particularly at youth level, it's important that coaches show players that football should be about fun and entertainment; how else will young ballers develop a love for the beautiful game?

However, there are numerous other benefits to footy tic tac toe. Firstly, it gets players' brains working, prompting them to develop their coordination, mental agility and decision-making skills in a high-intensity environment where they're forced to make snap choices about how to help their team reach victory. Physical skills also come into play, of course; this game is all about short sprints, rapid acceleration and quick turns of direction. On top of all that, players must work as a team, thinking about their teammates' choices and doing everything they can to triumph over their opponents. Put all these elements together and you've got a soccer drill that works on a number of different levels.

Some variations can also be made in order to practice other skills within this format. For example, each player could be required to dribble a soccer ball towards the grid before they place their bib, and pass it back to the player behind them once they've finished. This little tweak gives players the opportunity to work on their ball control, dribbling and close range passing skills, as well as their mental muscles.

How To Structure A Soccer Warm-Up

Soccer warm-ups are absolutely essential in football; they allow every member of the team to stretch out different muscles, loosen up, ensure their first touch is as sharp as possible, and raise the tempo before a training session or a match. Without a proper warm-up, the risk of injury to players is far greater.

However, warm-ups need to be structured in a particular way to ensure players prepare properly for the intense physical workout ahead. First of all, players should perform a series of dynamic stretches (eg. forward lunges, heel flicks and high knees) and static stretches (eg. standing quad, standing calf and seated hamstring stretch).

After a good stretch, various warm-up exercises can be used to raise the tempo slightly and start bringing in explosive bursts of energy and more targeted ball control work. Basic passing or dribbling moves are probably your best bet here, but other light-hearted games — such as tic tac toe — can also be used to raise the levels, particularly in training sessions where fuelling team spirit and harmony is a crucial part of the job. 

For the final part of a warm-up, coaches should move their players on to a more complex drill, something that focuses on simulating in-game scenarios that they're likely to encounter on the field of play. Popular examples might include a rondo or a passing grid; both these exercises allow players to sharpen up their first touch and close-range passing, practice pressing defenders, and increase their heart rate ahead of kick-off.

For more detailed information about the importance of soccer warm-ups, check out our guide to 12 of the best warm-up drills, exercises and stretches.