Here is how I play the game: I offer things like.... High Fives. Pennies. Random things at the bottom of my bag like paperclips or broken pencils. Pieces of fuzz from my pockets. I am not kidding. Kids go INSANE for these items. 7 year olds. 12 year olds. 18 year olds. Boys. Girls.
Here is why I play the game: The key is teaching them how to focus, getting them to focus, and then feeling good about it all. Teaching them to focus....thats the difficult part! Getting them to focus.....thats the easy part! Having them feel good about all of it.....thats the AWESOME part!
Small little "bets" for high fives and pennies need to be traded off into "personal" rewards as the athlete ages. I try to do my best to help the swimmers substitute these rewards that are essentially nothing to rewards that are more personal. Going from "YES! I won some pocket lint!" goes to "YES! I was able to do something that I didn't think was possible for me 3 months ago! What's next???" When a swimmer makes this switch from outside bribery to achieving a "personal" reward - that is when huge things can happen.
I believe it is easier for athletes to see that they are working for that feeling of accomplishment when the bribes are silly than if the bribes are for big-ticket items. The bigger the item, the more they work for that "item". The smaller the item, the easier it is for them to realize that the feeling of accomplishment is the best reward out there.