Do you have to spar in order to be an effective striker or can you simply hit punching mitts and kicking pads to get the same result? This question comes up quite a lot, so let me take a few minutes to address it.
At my academy, Next Level Martial Arts, we have new people joining all the time. Most of these beginner students have never trained any form of martial arts a day in their life. They are brand new to all of this stuff, so what do we do with them? We throw them in the ring with killers, so they can learn how to be a professional punching bag! How else are they going get TUFF?!?! I'm kidding of course
When new students begin with us we start them off in a beginner class. In this particular class our brand new students start off with the basics. Before a child learns how to run you must first teach them how to crawl, stand and walk first. It's no different when teaching someone how to be a proficient striker. Before a student can be an effective striker in a fight or sparring situation he or she must first learn proper stance, correct footwork, the different strikes - including hands, feet, knees and elbows, and the appropriate defense for the various strikes. Once our beginner students become adept at these things they start to incorporate more drills. After they show us that they can skillfully throw and defend strikes we begin to allow them to participate in novice sparring drills like one and two step sparring. Once the student displays a level of competency at this stage we begin to let them participate in the sparring sessions.
Now, when I say the words "sparring session" I don't want to assume you know what I'm talking about so let me explain. When students are finally allowed to spar they are permitted to do so at an intensity level of around 20-30%. We feel that provides the best learning environment for students. As students improve and become more skillful we allow them to increase the intensity of their sparring. Regardless of how skilled our students are we don't want them ever trying to kill each other, because that defeats the purpose of the sparring session. The sparring session is not meant to be a tough man contest nor is it an opportunity to show the beating you can put on someone. The sparring session is meant to provide students with an environment where they can practice and begin to internalize the techniques they've been learning in class.
So, do you have to spar in order to be an effective striker or can you simply hit punching mitts and kicking pads to get the same result? I personally believe that if you never spar you'll never internalize the techniques you learn and practice in class. For example, if all you ever do is hit pads and you never spar you'll never realize how important it is to keep your hands up. The same is true with Jiu-Jitsu. In Jiu-Jitsu, if all you ever do is practice techniques and participate in simulation drills, and you never do any live rolling, you'll never develop the feel and timing to apply those techniques in real life application. When you actually spar and grapple live the techniques you practice are internalized and become part of who you are.
So, yes, you have to spar if you want to become and effective striker. One reason I know this is because every time we allow a student to begin sparring they're like a deer caught in the headlights. They are shocked at how bad they performed. It's not to say they don't know how to throw powerful, technically proficient strikes, because they do. But, what they lack is something that only rounds and rounds of sparring can give them, and that's things such as timing, accuracy, feel, vision, and reaction to movement.
This is not to say that you can't learn how to strike by punching mitts and kicking pads, because you most certainly can. But, if you want to become an excellent striker who is able to demonstrate that in a real life situation against another human being who's trying to hit you back you must spar. You must put your hours in the ring and begin to internalize the techniques you practice so what you practice becomes who you really are. I hope this helps answer your question