Where there are rules, there will be people trying to exploit them. As much as martial arts are an honorable pursuit, winning medals and trophies is daunting, and shady tactics are often used. One of the words people in the BJJ competition scene like to use to accuse someone of having an unfair advantage is sandbagging, but what does it mean?
Sandbagging in BJJ refers to the practice of entering competitions at a lower skill level than the actual one to increase the chance of winning. This is often done by coaches and professors who deliberately don’t promote strong competitors, so they compete at a certain belt level longer, even if they are ready for promotion.
Sandbagging in grappling is a complicated topic with many conflicting opinions and takes on it. Everyone has their take on something like this, so here is what we at Rolling Around BJJ have to say about it.
What Is Sandbagging?
Sandbagging is a common practice across many fields. It means misrepresenting one’s abilities to gain an advantage. It is a form of deception where you lower people’s expectations for personal gain.
For example, it is used in business to deliberately reduce the predicted income, so when the actual results come up, the shareholders are much happier with the overperformance. Bluffing in poker is a perfect example of sandbagging, but it’s just part of the game.
But how does this translate to BJJ? A sandbagger in BJJ is a person who deliberately competes at a lower level to have a much higher chance of winning a medal.
BJJ tournaments separate competitors according to their belt color and weight classes to ensure even and competitive matches. Pitting a black belt against a white belt makes no sense because the black belt will obliterate the white belt. This is why the belt system is used to ensure fair play.
But this system also creates a lot of problems. A person whose skill is higher than the rank he is at can be considered a sandbagger, but this can be very subjective. Most people spend between 2 and 3 years between belt promotions, which may create a huge gap in skills at the same rank.
You can have a fresh blue belt with a year and a half of BJJ experience and a guy just on the brink of a purple belt with 5 or 6 years in the game, and it’s normal for them to be at entirely different levels despite the same belt color they compete at.
Many like to accuse academies of not promoting guys to have them win more medals for the academy and only elevate competitors to the next level when they have a chance of being on the podium at the next rank.
For instance, it’s not uncommon for big-name schools to not promote a brown belt to a black belt until he wins some international tournaments like the Pan-American or World Championships.
When such a guy enters a local tournament, he wipes out the competition. Some people believe this is outright sandbagging; others find it a normal path for someone with world-class aspirations.
Furthermore, some people train like professionals, even at blue or purple belts, and it’s completely normal for them to beat with ease other blue or purple belts who train 3–4 times a week. Is this sandbagging? No. It’s just that this person is training a hell of a lot more than the other guys.
Many young guys have decided to become gym rats, devote their entire lives to jiu-jitsu, and train like maniacs. If such a guy is a world-class competitor at blue or purple belt, it’s normal for him to demolish not only those in his rank but even non-competitive brown and black belts. These guys are not cheating when they compete at the rank they are at.
Sandbagging is also very rarely the choice of the competitor. Belt promotions are decided solely by the coach or professor at the academy, and tournament success is far from the only criterion.
You cannot blame a person who wins all the tournaments at a belt rank for his success just because his coach hasn’t decided to promote him to the next rank.
So, sandbagging in the IBJJF scene is a complicated topic and highly subjective.
Is Sandbagging In BJJ Cheating?
That said, undeniable sandbagging is cheating, but it’s not so easy to pull off. This can happen, for example, if a competitor is a brown belt under the IBJJF and enters a competition in another organization as a purple belt. This is blatant cheating, but it’s unlikely to go unnoticed.
Other types of sandbagging can happen with people from different martial arts. A black belt judoka competing at white belt in BJJ is sandbagging, but technically he has not earned a higher belt in jiu-jitsu, so it can also be considered fair play.
Or, if you have an accomplished catch wrestler with 10 years of experience, compete at the beginner or intermediate level in no-gi.
Someone deliberately entering a lower skill level than their real one is sandbagging and cheating. In my opinion, a professor or academy head holding a student of his at a certain belt level with the goal of long-term competition success is not. But the line is really thin.
After all, success in competitions is not the only factor that goes into belt promotion.
Things like attitude, willingness to help others, sportsmanship, gym etiquette, and the ability to teach others in the higher belts are all essential criteria for belt promotion. Just because someone dominates his skill level at tournaments doesn’t necessarily mean he is ready for the next level.
When Is Sandbagging Not Bad
During the last decade, BJJ has dramatically risen in popularity, and many kids have started training. The main BJJ belt system begins only when you are an adult, meaning there are a lot of kids who have trained for 10 years and have medaled at the juvenile level but are only blue belts when they become 18.
Naturally, they destroy 25-year-old blue belts who have been training for 3 years.
This can be considered sandbagging, but it’s also allowed according to the rules, and you cannot blame coaches for keeping students at the rank they are obliged to by the time restriction placed by the IBJJF. So, while some may consider this unfair, it’s no one’s fault but the system’s.
As long as the belt color is a way to organize a competition and you must spend a minimal amount of time on each rank, you will have sandbagging to some extent, which is unavoidable.
Gyms are competitive and want to have as many medals as possible; it’s unrealistic to expect martial artists not to care for that. So, coaches extend the time a strong competitor is at a certain level to be sure he will be competitive from the moment he enters the new rank.
Competitors want to have as much experience as possible if they aim for big wins like world titles. You can’t blame them for taking every opportunity and entering local tournaments where most people are not on their level.
This competition between academies and the quest to win gold is terrible for hobbyists who want to test their skills but get dominated by full-time competitors at every rank.
But at the same time, this constantly increases the skill level, advancing the overall level of the sport. So, the practice of keeping competitors at a belt level longer is both bad and good at the same time.
Cheating is a nasty practice, even more so in martial arts, where values like honor and integrity are still held in high esteem. Is sandbagging cheating? It sure is. But it’s not easy to figure out when someone is doing it just to win medals at a level he has long passed and when many other factors like age and dedication come into play.