Sandbagging is a term used in many sports, however, it has made an appearance in pickleball recently, as the issue of sandbagging has become prevalent over recent years.
Just imagine that you were a professional singer, and then you quietly entered a talent show locally, going against less skilled individuals. You’d wipe the floor with them, and win super easily, wouldn’t you?
If this happened, you would be sandbagging, and this is exactly what has been happening in pickleball recently.
It has always been an issue that competition runners have needed to be aware of, however, the 2020 pandemic made it easier for sandbagging to happen in the years hence.
Let’s talk about what sandbagging is, and what is being done about it!
What Is Sandbagging?
Sandbagging is the name for what happens when a player enters a sanctioned pickleball tournament, under the guise of a rating much below their skill level in order to snag an easy victory.
It is a very annoying and controversial practice for people to do, and sadly, it has become even more common as Pickleball has become more popular.
Should you have played pickleball for some time, you will probably be aware of the player ratings in the sport, even if you have not yet played a tournament.
A rating in pickleball is a number that falls between 2.0 and 8.0, it allows the director of the tournament to have an idea of your approximate skill level so that they can match you up against opponents at a similar level to you.
This will allow for a more fair match.
One issue is that there are different rating systems, and all of these use different metrics, so this means there is no actual universal system in place to rate players for tournaments, in spite of the community trying to establish one.
This issue opens up the opportunity for high-level players to exploit rating differences and play down, so they can get an easy victory by competing against players far below their level of skill.
Players who enter tournaments claiming to be below their actual skill level are doing something called ‘sandbagging’.
How Does Sandbagging Happen?
There are three rating systems for pickleball; UTPR, WPR, and DUPR. These systems are not uniform, so players can have different ratings in each system.
For example, a player with a 4.5 UTPR rating could enter a WPR rated tournament as a 3.5 and absolutely no one would know.
Players are also able to earn separate ratings per bracket; singles, doubles, etc., and can then play down in skill. This means that a 4.0 player could easily pair with a 3.0 player in a 3.0 player in a mixed doubles game and win.
The 2020 pandemic made this all worse, as a player may have had a 3.0 rating in February 2020, but then spent two years improving their skills quietly without moving up in ratings.
There are also new players who have strong backgrounds in tennis but register to low brackets as they have not played enough games in the competition to be rated accurately.
What Is Being Done About It?
Sadly, as it stands not a great deal is being done about it, there are thousands of players taking part in competitions of 1,000+ every year, and not every instance of sandbagging can be caught.
Usually, if they are caught, it is often well after the fact.
However, when a referee or even a competitor suspects sandbagging is taking place, it is usually reported to the director of the tournament who then tells the managing director.
The team of the managing director will then research the history of the player to see if the rating requires adjustment once the tournament ends.
For sandbagging to stop, this would require massive changes to the sports ratings systems.
It would be ideal if players remained unrated until they have competed in a set number of tournaments, so everyone has a rating that accurately represents their level of skill.
Players and directors of tournaments should also see all ratings as a part of registering for a tournament, so if players needed to register in a bracket that matched their highest rating then the possibility of any sandbagging taking place would be minimized.
For now, though, players, referees, and directors need to be watchful and look out for sandbagging, until something more can be done.
Understanding Pickleball Ratings Systems
Most recreational players will be unfamiliar with ratings, of course, you could self-rate as many do, based on USA pickleball criteria.
However, for those who play in tournaments, USA pickleball will assign their ratings under the UTPR system, which calculates ratings based on tournament play only.
Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating (DUPR) calculates ratings based on tournament and recreational play. The World Pickleball Rankings (WPR) uses its own evaluation methods, which complicates things even more.
There is also IPTPA as well, (International Pickleball itching Pickleball Association) which uses its own methods to rank players.
How Does Sandbagging Work?
By purposefully downplaying their abilities when they register to play, a higher-rated player can easily sail through low-level tournaments, defeating competition with ease.
Some sandbaggers would be 4.5 In UTPR, but play in a DUPR tournament as a 3.5, and no one is the wiser. Some sandbaggers will only play down by half a point, others may play down by a full point.
The DUPR self-rating system also provides some less nefarious challenges to the ratings being uniform.
If you were to self-rate as a 3.0, you could continue practicing and improving over time, you could keep your pickleball rating level when playing in tournaments.
This would still be considered sandbagging.
Identifying A Sandbagger?
It is not easy to identify someone who is sandbagging until they actually play, since the whole idea is simply to conceal skill level so no one knows you’re sandbagging.
So, how can you tell someone is sandbagging, you would have to be aware of what the criteria are for high-level players.
Telling A Player’s Rating
When we talk about high-level players, we mean levels 4.0 to 5.0 and above.
If someone is actually at this level, they will do the following:
- Hit forehands with control and depth consistently.
- Place a majority of serves with a variety of depth and speed.
- Hit backhand shots with decent consistency.
- Dink with decent consistency in height and depth control, without ending rallies too early.
- Awareness of rules, partners’ court position, team movement, and identifying weaknesses in opponents.
- Execute drop shots consistently.
- Only make a moderate number of errors unforced per game.
If you spot someone doing this in a 3.0 tournament, they are probably sandbagging!
With such a chaotic rating system, it is no surprise that some players are trying to get an easy win. However, you can look out for signs that someone may be sandbagging to get ahead.
If you suspect someone is sandbagging, tell the referee. Hopefully, more will be done to improve the rating system, so this stops being such a prevalent issue in Pickleball.