Veteran coach balances jokes and discipline over the years

Richard Sybesma is the kind of coach who could crack a joke or scream, depending on the circumstances. 

“He knew when it was time to put the hammer down and when it was time to make a joke,” said Ron Forrest, a former Frog swimmer and current club swim coach for the Fort Worth Area Swim Team.

Sybesma has found the right balance, Forrest said. And he’s had 32 years to do so.

Since July 1979, Sybesma has been the head coach of the Horned Frog swimming and diving team. But he’s been swimming for much longer than that.

Sbesma grew up in the small West Texas town of Andrews and started swimming in the eighth grade. It was doctor’s orders, he said.

“I was a scrawny kid,” Sybesma said. “I got sick a lot.”

His doctor advised his parents to get Sybesma involved in sports in order to build his strength. 

Sybesma said his father, who was from Holland, did not want him to play ordinary after-school sports. It was his mother who pushed him in the direction of the pool.

“[The town] was very fortunate because of oil money, and they had built a very nice high school with an indoor pool, which was unusual in the ‘70s,” he said.

Sybesma had friends on the swim team who did not play school-sponsored sports either, and his mother managed to talk his strict father into letting him join too, he said.

In high school, Sybesma made the swim team.

“I remember no goggles and your eyes watering easily for two to three hours after every practice,” he said.

As a junior, he began coaching swim teams after school for the club where he started swimming. Sybesma found that he really enjoyed teaching children to swim.

“I felt I had a knack for it,” he said.

After high school, Sybesma received a scholarship from Texas Tech University for swimming and continued coaching club teams during the summers in Andrews. He did that for four years.

“I had two different backgrounds from two different levels of swimming and from different coaches,” he said.

After college, Sybesma got a job coaching high school swimming in Monahans, Texas.

“That’s where I molded my own style,” he said.

He stayed up-to-date on the newest technology and techniques by attending clinics and paying attention to any advice others had to offer.

“I wasn’t a great swimmer,” Sybesma said. “I was a solid swimmer, and I think being a solid swimmer you learn a lot because you’re the guy who’s there all the time, fighting for a spot to travel. You probably learn a lot more than the stud who always is winning. You learn from them as you watch them.”

It seems some of his swimmers may have learned from him.

Forrest, who grew up in Canada, signed with TCU in 1990 after taking a trip to the campus for the first time.

“It was a lot different than it is now,” Forrest said.

Forrest felt as if he fit with the swim team, and he immediately loved the campus and took a liking to Sybesma.

“Coming down from Canada, he was very Texan,” Forrest said. “I really liked that.”

Sybesma was different from the coaches Forrest had encountered before. He was not as authoritarian and more personable.

“I think that’s very important in a coach,” Forrest said. “I think there are a lot of coaches out there who get too wound up in the serious side of it and don’t understand that there’s a full relationship that goes on between coaches and athletes.”

Forrest’s relationship with Sybesma did not end when he graduated from TCU. The two remain friends and colleagues even today. Forrest coaches swimming locally, so they interact a lot professionally.

“I think the people who just stand up there on the side of the pool deck and stay stoic and don’t like to show a lot of emotion—that whole “that was expected” type of thing—that just teaches an athlete to become an automaton really,” Forrest said. “Richard doesn’t coach you to be an automaton. He coaches you to be a person.”

Ben Biefnes, Sybesma’s graduate assistant coach, graduated from TCU in 2010 and swam breaststroke for the Horned Frog swim team. He coached at another school for a year before becoming a coach at TCU.

Biefnes thinks he has an advantage because he has a background with and a passion for the Horned Frogs, and that motivates him to do his job better, he said.

Sybesma recruited Biefnes when he was just a junior in high school.

“There are a lot of things Richard has to offer: He’s a great recruiter. He’s great talking with people and selling the program,” Biefnes said.

“I decided to sign here, and I’m still here,” he said.

Head men’s golf coach Bill Montigel has been at TCU about three months longer than Sybesma. Montigel started in March 1979, so the coaches have been able to form a deep friendship over the past 30 years.

“I have a lot of respect for him because I’ve seen how hard he works,” Montigel said.

Sybesma even taught Montigel’s children how to swim.

“His life is being a swim coach,” Montigel said. “That’s what he loves to do. He just puts all of his energy into trying to help the swimmers be the best they possibly can. He tries to give them good guidance as far as making sure they get their degrees and that they represent TCU in a real positive way, and I think his teams have always done that.”

If anything, Sybesma doesn’t know when to quit. He’s been coaching swimming since he was in college, and he’s been coaching at TCU for more than 30 years with no plans for retirement.

Sybesma worked with Forrest on his “terrible” breaststroke for four years despite a lack of visible progress. And his positive attitude seems to have spread.

“You can hear him singing on the deck to the players sometimes,” said Laura Weisbrod, administrative assistant in the swimming and diving and volleyball office. “He’ll just be giving an instruction, and he’ll just start singing.”

Weisbrod said she loved her job and wanted to stay here even though her daughter has long since graduated. She got the job at the university in August 2003 because her daughter wanted to attend TCU. “I don’t dread coming to work,” she said. “I look forward to being here and being a part of what’s happening.”

Sybesma is always encouraging swimmers and other coaches, so they know they can come to him, Weisbrod said.

“They know they can go to him, but they also know that there are rules,” Weisbrod said. “I think he has a good healthy balance.”