The Unethical Practice of Competitive Sandbagging

Subject: Sandbagging a gymnast

Sex: female
Age: 30
Gymnastics Level: Daughter L5

I noticed gymnasts that place 1st in at least 2 events and place 1st or 2nd AA repeat a level with an AA of about 36. My question:
How is this fair? Is there any rules regarding moving on or not being able to repeat an age and level you have already championed the previous year? It is supposed to be competative gymnastics but this isn’t competition when this is allowed. Is it a state by state thing or USAG standard that allows it?

While the USA Gymnastics minimum for moving up is a 31.0 All-Around, USAG will never mandate moving up gymnasts with any score for liability reasons. If they forced a gymnast to move to a higher level with more difficulty requirements, they could be held liable, in the case of an accident. There are a few legitimate reasons why a gymnast might not move up, like an injury during the off-season which kept them from getting the necessary difficulty for the next level, but this is rare and not the situation about which you are talking.

USAG Condemned This Practice (Which Must Mean It is Way Too Common)

To their credit (Note that I am giving USAG credit for something for a change), they did put out a communication recently, specifically condemning this practice of holding gymnasts back and recommended moving gymnasts to a “competitive” level to promote fairness to all gymnasts.

It is Not the Fault of the States

Individual states do not have the power to overrule USAG and institute a mandatory move-up rule.

The Gyms and Coaches, Actually Doing This, are the Culprits

The responsibility for this is squarely on the shoulders of the gym(s) and coaches that are engaging in this practice. I have never heard any justification for sandbagging that rings true. It is obvious that they are simply trying to stack the deck, so their gymnasts can win, by holding them back to a level of gymnastics where they are virtually guaranteed to win.

These Gyms and Coaches are Building Their Reputation – In a Negative Way

Gyms and coaches do this for one reason and one reason only – to try to build their reputation as a gym and/or as a coach. They are not doing it for the gymnasts or for the sport and certainly not for good sportsmanship. But everyone knows, or should know, that they are winning only because of this tactic, not because of good coaching or a good team program.

Usually a Compulsory Practice, But Judges’s Cup Bringing Out the Worst In Coaches

The situation usually exists primarily in the compulsory levels, but the National Judge’s Cup meet qualifying system has brought out its own brand of the same problem. The judges use the meets for fundraising, run local state meets and qualify “Level 7″ gymnasts to a so-called National Meet. The meets are held very early in the season and are often the first meet of the year for many gyms.

Level 8’s are Not Level 7’s

The situation, in every state I have seen participate, is that most gyms take gymnasts, who they know are going to compete Level 8 that same year, and hold them back as Level 7 gymnasts just for that meet, so they have the best chance of qualifying and winning. The winners at the State level, and certainly the winners at the National level, are almost 100% really Level 8 gymnasts.

Gymnasts Know What is Truly The Right Thing To Do

I was in a gym, where a coach called over a gymnast, who had been a Level 7 the year before and was definitely moving up to Level 8, and told the girl that she was going to hold her back for one meet, so she could qualify for the National Judges Cup meet. The girl looked at her, and said, “I’m not going to do that. I competed at it last year and it’s someone else’s turn.” and she turned and walked away (Brittni – you are my hero. You always CTR).

Sandbagging is Really Hurting the Gymnasts, Not Helping Improve Their Confidence

Apart from the lack of fairness of “sandbagging” gymnasts, there is always also a negative effect on the gymnast’s career. Especially at the compulsory levels, spending more than one year at any level, much less a compulsory level, wastes valuable training time on skills that are not moving a gymnast forward toward high level optional gymnastics. And in spite of the proclamations by many parents and coaches, “winning” like this does not give a gymnast any real confidence or sense of accomplishment.

Sandbagged Gymnasts are Falling Behind Every Year

Gymnasts know they are being held back, because the girls, they competed against the previous year from other teams, are now a level above them in competition. Gyms, who do this regularly at the compulsory level (Level 4 – 6) end up with their gymnasts 3 levels behind the gymnasts the girls they originally competed against their first year and an average 3 years older than the average Level 7 gymnast. The true message that gets through to gymnasts, being held back, whether they win or not, is that their coaches don’t trust their talent and ability to continue to successfully compete against their peers.

Only Gyms and Coaches That Are Not Good Enough to Really Compete Do This

Getting all or most of your gymnasts to high level optional gymnastics (Level 10 and Elite) requires a training program designed to do that and the coaching ability to do so. Gyms, that consistently hold gymnasts back, are advertising the fact that they are not capable of coaching well enough to move gymnasts up every year or coaching all their gymnasts to a high level.

Sandbagged Gymnasts are Losing and Wasting Years of Their Career

Gyms, that also primarily train only the skills for each level (instead of training gymnasts from the beginning to be high level optional gymnasts), waste time doing only the 31 major compulsory element skills, over and over again all those years, while gymnasts in other gyms are learning that many new skills in a month, or a week or even in one day (personal coaching record = 37 new skills for a gymnast in one day on the 4 events plus tramp and tumble trac). Holding gymnasts back, and especially training only the skills for that year, instead of training for the future, means that, in the long run, that gymnast has no real good shot at a successful high level gymnastics career.

Frustrating/Unfair, But Those Sandbagging Gymnasts Will Likely Never Catch Up

So, as frustrating and unfair as it is, when you see “sandbagging” going on, remember that this gym and that gymnast are not really winning in the real competition and in real gymnastics, which is defined by success in reaching Level 10 and Elite, and in being successful at those levels. Your gymnast may not have won that particular medal, at that lower level, but they are now ahead in their gymnastics career, of that gymnast and most every gymnast, at any gym that “sandbags.”

Real Pride in Real Accomplishments

And you should take comfort that your gymnast knows that the medals they do win, they have earned against their peers, and they can take true pride in that. And that is something that “sandbagged” gymnasts will never again be able to do in their career.

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5 Responses to “The Unethical Practice of Competitive Sandbagging”

  1. Brad Dickey September 4, 2011 at 6:20 am #

    You are so correct. My daughter was a state champion at level 2,3 and 4, but we noticed that she was always among the oldest in her level. We asked her coach and was told that she was being put in the best situation for her ability. We later found that our gym did not have the equipment or the coaching ability to move our daughter past level 6. As a parent with little or no knowledge of the sport I had no idea. We moved our daughter to another gym and she has moved to level 8 in a little over a year. She finished 4th in the state at level 7. Her new coach told us winning at lower levels is nice but getting upper level skills is more impoortant. Our new gym wins the level 10 state team award nearly evey year and puts girls in college. That’s the way I measure success.

  2. Valerie September 11, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    And let us not forget to mention the Nastia L. Supergirl Cup- an excellent example of sandbagging.

    • Zeta September 13, 2011 at 8:43 am #

      I so agree with this statement!!!

  3. Troy Wright September 11, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    This article is extremely short-sighted and very biased. As a gymnastic coach for over 27 years, I can tell you that this article is dangerous in the fact that it makes this issue extremely black and white. Parents who read this may take it as meaning that any gymnast who is kept at a level for 2 years is the object of a sand-bagging coaching staff. There are simply too many variables to write this article in such a declarative nature.

    It is true that there are coaches out there who keep kids in levels just to win. It is the nature of all sports and very disappointing. Valerie makes a great point about the Supergirl Cup. However, there are also many other situations in which a gymnast may need to repeat a level.

    Too often, the assumption in our sport is that kids should just move levels and be taught the next skill and the next and the next without mastering the basics and creating a strong foundation for the future. It is frightening to me that the author mentions that a student learned 37 new skills in one day. Learning new skills is a process, and while extremely talented athletes may be able to learn skills faster than other athletes, I would argue that the author’s definition of learned in this situation would likely be described as “throwing skills” by many other coaches. Our sports would be much better off if more coaches would understand that the compulsory levels are created to build that foundation. Other skills for the future can begin to be developed at the same time an athlete is competing in the compulsory levels, but to rush this process just to move levels is a bad idea. In most cases, athletes are better off competing at levels that are 70-80% of their ability level than having them go out and compete at 100% of their ability. Doing this allows the gymnast to train toward those higher levels without having to rush dangerous skills and create bad habits by repeating them without the right technique.

    The other issue to remember is that there are not many athletes that come into most programs who are going to be level 10 gymnasts. The author makes it sound as if every gymnast is going to be a level 10, and we all know that this is not the case. The large majority of our athletes will never reach that plateau. What the author doesn’t seem to understand is that, in many cases, those athletes that are moved from level to level are actually being put into a position where they will never reach their full potential. Gyms all across this country continue to use this philosophy, and doom their athletes to competing skills incorrectly, creating bad habits that usually cannot be broken, and never really forming the foundation for these athletes to truly build on. These athletes will inevitably “hit a wall” earlier than they would have with a stronger foundation that could have been created by taking the time, sometimes at a repeated level to do gymnastics the right way, instead of simply moving to the next skill.

    It is unfortunate that our system is not perfect and that it sometimes creates these problems. The code has made it nearly impossible for athletes to compete at the elite level by following the philosophy that I wrote above. It is a no-win situation when the most talented athletes that we ever have are destined to never being able to compete at the highest level without taking some shortcuts through their training to get there. There is simply too much expected of them at that level for them to be able to build the muscle memory that they should for skills that end up being the backbone of future skills. So, I would agree with the author on one point…those athletes who are obviously the most talented kids around and are headed toward elite, can hardly afford to spend much more time than the bare minimum at any one level. Personally, I think that is why we are seeing so many injuries, and so much sub-par gymnastics at that level, but it is the nature of the beast, and FIG has not asked for my assistance in changing that.

    The reality is though, that in most gyms, the very highest percentage of team kids that have that ability is probably in the 0-1% range. To tell parents and gymnasts that their well-being is not being appreciated by coaches that are honest with their athletes by telling them what level they are, does a great disservice to those parents and gymnasts. Your opinion is your opinion, but to give advice to someone and denegrate any other system is extremely irresponsible.

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