All athletes need speed--particularly in a sport like basketball where the first player up and down the court can mean the difference in winning or losing a game.

In the world of sports, the fastest, quickest athletes are usually the most successful. But exactly what kind of speed and quickness is best for basketball?

Many coaches may place too much emphasis on "straight-ahead" speed by, for example, focusing too much of their attention on getting their athletes to run a faster 40-yard dash. In a sport like basketball, this isn't necessarily going to be the kind of speed that's going to make for a more effective player. Seldom, if ever, does a player run baseline to baseline in a straight line, and even if they did, a fast 40-yard dash might not equate to an effectively fast basketball player.

Having fast top-end speed measured at 40 yards wouldn't necessarily make you as effective as perhaps being a bit slower in the 40, but having the quickness and explosiveness to be faster down the court (which is a shorter distance).

Most sprinting in basketball starts from moving or "rolling" positions, not a stationary one. So, some of your training should be spent with that in mind. Performing your speed training from different starting positions such as turning and sprinting from a backpedal, accelerating from a side-shuffle, or running after getting up from the floor (simulating being knocked down and having to get up and hustle down the court) translates into more "real world" training for basketball players than simply lining up at one baseline and sprinting to the other.

This doesn't mean there is no room in your training for that kind of sprinting. It may have a place in your conditioning program--to build, for example, speed endurance. But, don't confuse this type of training with working on your game speed.

Here are three tips that can help athletes plan a program designed to improve their basketball speed:

Build Strength

Before any speed work is done, an athlete must have adequate strength. Without it, you might as well be trying to get a car to go 100 miles per hour with a go-cart's engine. Studies have shown that weight training to build strength can improve running speed. We're not talking about building big muscles here. We're talking about building strong muscles that can help us produce speed.

A basic strength-building program for speed includes strengthening the legs (calves, hamstrings, and quads) with exercises such as calf raises, squats, leg curls and extensions; strengthening the upper body with exercises such as dumbbell (bench) press, seated row, shoulder raises, bicep curls, and triceps extensions; and the core muscles (abdominals and back) by using regular crunches from the floor, stability ball crunches, oblique rotations, and back extensions. These basic exercises and more can help the basketball athlete begin to develop the strength necessary to build speed.

Work on Acceleration and Quickness

Acceleration is the ability to increase velocity. The key here is how quickly you can increase your speed. This is perhaps more important in basketball than raw speed, because unlike a sport like track where all the athletes take off at the same time, basketball players must be quick to recognize when they must start a sprint--such as a rebound leading to a fast break--and then be able to accelerate quickly. In basketball, having the ability to accelerate from a stationary position or from a moving position is equally important.

Drills such as learning the proper 45-degree body position to begin acceleration, or using the proper arm action in the sprint can be helpful in this type of training. Each of these seemingly simple, but often overlooked aspects to becoming faster can help athletes improve their acceleration.

Don't Forget Deceleration

Training for speed without including deceleration training is like learning to drive a car very fast without brakes. Athletes need effective speed, and effective speed means being fast, but under control.

When a basketball player dribbles fast down the court for a breakaway lay-up, she'd better be able to effectively slow down as she approaches the basket. Otherwise, she's out of control, and will probably miss the lay-up and perhaps even get injured.

Braking or decelerating is extremely important to speed training--perhaps the most important skill in basketball speed training. This may seem counter intuitive to some, but in order to have effective speed on the basketball court, the athlete must be able to run fast, decelerate or slow down, and reaccelerate into a sprint, cut, or jump. Slowing down properly actually aids in the athlete's ability to reaccelerate. A fast, out-of-control player is not very effective in a game. So make sure that learning proper deceleration techniques are an integral part of your speed workouts.

An extensive discussion about proper deceleration technique is complex and beyond the scope of this article. However, many experts suggest that two key components to good deceleration is in keeping nice flexed or bent knees, and in lowering the athlete's hips during deceleration--whether from a sprint or from a landing.