Imagine that you are an accomplished and highly trained professional singer.
What do you think would happen if you quietly entered a local talent show and competed against amateurs with far less skill and experience without telling anyone that you’re a pro?
You would likely mop the floor with the competition and easily win the contest, right?
Well, if you did, you would be sandbagging.
What is Sandbagging in Pickleball?
Sandbagging is when a player enters a sanctioned tournament using a rating that they know is below their skill level in order to ensure an easy victory.
It is a frustrating and controversial practice which has reportedly become more common as the popularity of pickleball has continued to explode.
If you’ve been playing pickleball for a while, you have probably heard about player ratings even if you haven’t yet played in your first tournament yet.
A rating is a number between 2.0 and 8.0 that lets a tournament director know your approximate skill level in order to match you against opponents with similar experience.
The thing is, there are several different ratings systems and they all use different metrics, so there is no truly universal system of rating pickleball players who compete in tournaments, despite the pickleball community’s ongoing efforts to establish one.
These discrepancies open up the opportunity for higher-level players to exploit differences in ratings and “play down,” ensuring easy victories by competing against much weaker players.
A player who deliberately enters a tournament with a rating lower than their true skill level is engaging in the frustrating and controversial practice called sandbagging.
Pickleball Ratings Systems
If you have played mostly recreationally you likely have no idea what your rating is. You could then “self-rate,” as many players do, by evaluating your own skill level based on a set of criteria promulgated by USA Pickleball, the sport’s governing body in the United States.
For tournament players, USA Pickleball assigns its own ratings under a system called UTPR (short for USA Pickleball Tournament Player Rating). The UTPR calculates a player’s rating based only on their tournament play. It is calculated using your rating, your partner’s rating, your opponents’ rating, and your tournament wins and losses.
Another system, the Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating, or DUPR, incorporates not only tournament play but recreational play as well.
Two other ratings systems, WPR (World Pickleball Rankings) and IPTPA (International Pickleball Teaching Pickleball Association) use their own criteria and evaluation methods, further complicating any semblance of uniformity in player ratings.
So how do sandbaggers get away with playing below their skill level in sanctioned tournaments?
How Does Sandbagging Work?
Think about it. What’s an easy way to win more games? Simple: you play weaker opponents who you can defeat handily.
By deliberately downplaying their abilities when registering, higher-rated players can cruise through lower level tournaments easily defeating their competition.
This is the essence of sandbagging in pickleball.
Imagine a player has a lot of tournament experience and has earned an official rating of 4.5 in the UTPR system. If they have never played in a WPR or DUPR event they could simply play their first tournament under one of these other rating systems by signing up as a 3.5 and no one would ever know.
Some sandbaggers will play down just half a rating point, say from a 4.0 to a 3.5, while others will rate themselves a full point down for an even easier path to victory.
The DUPR’s self-ratings also present some less nefarious challenges to uniformity in player ratings. For example, recreational players who self-rate at, say, a 3.0 could continue to improve over time with consistent practice yet never increase their self-assigned level when playing in pickleball tournaments.
How to Identify a Sandbagger
Sandbaggers by their nature are very difficult to spot until they step onto the pickleball court and you observe their style of play.
After all, the whole idea behind sandbagging is to conceal one’s true skill level, so no one would ever admit to being a sandbagger before a game.
So how can you identify a sandbagger when playing in a tournament? It starts with knowing the criteria for high level players in the 4.0-5.0 range.
How can you tell if someone is a 4.0-5.0+ player?
According to USA Pickleball’s guidelines for self-rating, a player with UTPR rating of 4.0 should be able to:
- Consistently hit forehands with depth and control
- Hit backhand shots with moderate consistency
- Place most serves with varied speed and depth
- Volley a variety of shots with varied speed and depth
- Execute drop shots with moderate consistency
- Dink with moderate consistency in controlling height and depth, working on developing patience to avoid trying to end the rally too early
- Hit a mix of hard and soft 3rd shots to gain a strategic advantage
- Demonstrate a broad understanding of the rules, awareness of their partner’s court position and moving as a team, and beginning to identify an opponent’s weaknesses and make a strategic game plan to defeat them
- Make only a moderate number of unforced errors during a game
That’s a lot of points to evaluate, so it’s easy to see how self-ratings can vary wildly from player to player, even those with similar levels of skill.
As the rating levels increase to 4.5 and 5.0, the criteria become stricter.
For example, a 4.5 rated player is superior to a 4.0 player in that:
- Their backhand is as consistent and well developed as their forehand
- They have high success in hitting 3rd shots that cannot be returned to an opponent’s advantage
- They make a limited number of unforced errors
- They are able to consistently block hard volleys and drop them into the non volley zone and are comfortable hitting hard volleys and overhead smashes
- They have improved footwork and communicate more with their partner on the court
- Understands strategy and can alter and adapt their style of play to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent
Improvements in ratings at these levels come more from consistency, avoiding errors and neutralizing opponents’ advantages, as it is expected that by this point the fundamentals have been fully mastered.
At the 5.0 level, players should demonstrate these skills above those of the 4.5 player:
- Hit all kinds of shots consistently – forehand, backhand, serves, and volleys – with a mix of speed, depth, and spin
- Mastery of the dink game at the kitchen line with the ability to move opponents out of position and exhibiting patience in waiting for an attackable shot
- Mastery of 3rd shot strategy and able to drive or drop the ball consistently from either forehand or backhand
- Mastery of the soft game with the ability to hit drop shots or resets from anywhere on the pickleball court
- Able to block hard volleys and successfully volley balls at opponents’ feet or for a overhead put-away
- Mastery of ball placement and ability to volley for defensive or attack purposes
Using these guidelines, you should be able to tell if the person on the other side of the net is a sandbagger.
Some questions you could ask yourself in identifying a sandbagger include:
- Do you find yourself continually reacting to what your opponent is doing?
- Do you try to hit strategic shots that your opponent immediately returns for a quick point or end-of-rally before you even knew what was happening?
- Do your opponents’ shots tend to pull you out of position leaving parts of the court wide open for your opponent to easily put the ball away?
Keep Reading: Complete List of Pickleball Definitions
Sandbagging is a deceitful and unsportsmanlike practice in pickleball tournaments that no one knows exactly how to control or stop.
The incidence of players exploiting differences in rating systems shows no signs of slowing down, especially since more and more people are playing pickleball these days making for a larger pool of player ratings to track.
To be clear, not all players who play outside their known skill level are sandbaggers. In fact, some players will actually play UP a bracket when entering tournaments.
Think about a 3.5 self-rated player entering a tournament in the 4.0 bracket.
They may do this to challenge themselves and test their skills against better players, or they may just think they are better players than they truly are!
But when it comes whether you are facing a sandbagger, you won’t know it until you find yourself running ragged all over the court, chasing down your opponent’s perfectly placed shots, and having your own strategies turned against you like a puppet on a string!