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Using the "5-Tool" vs. "2- or 3-Tool Player" Analogy

This sports analogy can help us understand intelligences and testing profiles.

Key points

  • Metaphors and analogies can be important parts of therapy and help neurodevelopmentally atypical children and their parents.
  • The "five-tool player" analogy can promote understanding of a child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses and/or testing results.
  • The analogy can lead to specific recommendations for teachers, parents, and others working with atypical children and teens.

Hitting for power, hitting for average, speed on the base paths or in the field, glove work, throwing—a major league baseball player excelling at all of these is called a "five-tool player." Five-tool players are rare—Bleacher Reports suggests “as rare as an unassisted triple play”—and often destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Think about (and perhaps look up the lifetime statistics of) Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Ichiro, as well as the best player on the team I cheered for while growing up: Mike Schmidt. Schmidt won a Gold Glove nine straight years, led the national league in homers eight times, and once stole 29 bases in a single season.

Does someone have to be a five-tool player to make it in the major leagues? Of course not. Most major league players are very good at two or three of these skills and some just one or two. Compare leadoff hitters (who hit for average and high on-base percentage) to cleanup hitters (who accumulate extra base hits and home runs). Compare good hitters to utility infielders (strong fielders at multiple positions) and late-inning, close-game pinch runners (speed).

These players (and their coaches) know what they are good at, work hard to do their best with (or make accommodations for) what they are not, and can have long careers making millions of dollars. They are all important players on successful teams.

I sometimes use this "five-tool versus two- or -three tool player" analogy when helping neurodevelopmentally atypical children and adolescents (especially those that are into sports) and their parents better understand their cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and/or their neuro-psychological testing results, and/or what they are good at and what they struggle with in school.

The five-tool player analogy and multiple intelligences

Consider Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” model. Gardner puts aside the idea of one single type of intelligence (g) measured by traditional intelligence tests (IQ) and thinks in terms of (at least) eight different kinds: logical-mathematical, linguistic, intra- and inter-personal (understanding oneself and understanding and interacting with others), naturalistic (understanding living things and reading nature), spatial, musical, and bodily-kinesthetic (coordinating mind a body).

In ways parallel to one- or two- or three-tool players, very few people exhibit all, or even most, of these intelligences. Scientists and engineers can struggle socially. Writers can be poor at math. Singers, dancers, and athletes often attend specialized training programs rather than comprehensive college programs, or even skip higher education altogether.

The five-tool player analogy and neuropsychological testing

Consider the current version of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC- 5). Though the WISC-5 calculates a Full-Scale IQ, it emphasizes index scores: Verbal Comprehension, Visual Spatial, Fluid Reasoning, Working Memory, and Processing Speed. These index scores tend to correlate with children’s academic achievement patterns—how well they do in English versus math, for example.

In ways parallel to one- or two- or three-tool players, the profiles of most of the children and adolescents in my practice show relative strengths and weaknesses across these dimensions. Many evidence relatively weak working memory and processing speed—how quickly or fluidly they process information and solve problems. Full Scale IQ scores tell us little or nothing about their abilities.

Similarly, children and adolescents in my practice tend to be strong at, or at least better at, some academic skills and weaker at others (e.g., math or remembering science and history facts versus reading and writing). Grade point averages (GPA) tell us little or nothing about their skills.

Many children in my practice are actually pretty strong readers or writers or relatively good at math—but weak processing speed means they take longer to finish tests or assignments. They also become anxious about how they are doing (compared to peers) and this anxiety slows them down even more. These are the children and adolescents who should have extended time on assignments and tests.

A 'two- or three-tool vs. five-tool’ recommendation

Howard Gardner notes that linguistic and logical mathematical intelligences tend to be the types most valued in school and in many professional careers. It is important for parents and teachers to identify, value, and develop other intelligences their child or student might possess and look for education and career paths that fit these.

A starting point might be noticing what your child or adolescent prefers or chooses to do most often, or what they are doing when they seem happiest and most engaged.

One of my young adult patients avoids and struggles to succeed in the college science and math courses needed for the science or engineering career they have been pursuing (or that their parents think they should pursue) for many years. In contrast, this patient is very happy with, enthusiastically tells stories about, goes in early to, and receives commendations and promotions at their job at a busy convenience store. Might they be happier and do better in college as a business major?

One of my middle-school-age patients struggles to sit still and focus for long periods of time in class. In contrast, when we go for walks in a local park they excitedly explore streams and fallen logs and enthusiastically tell me what they know about what they find and observe. Might this child find meaning and success someday as a field biologist or some other outdoor job or career?

Two more recommendations

Remember that there are lots of jobs and career paths—lots of "niches" one can be adapted for—in adult life. Language and logical-mathematical skills are not the only ones that are valued and rewarded in the real world. Remember also that work "teams," like baseball "teams," function best when their members have a range of complementary abilities and skills and ways of thinking about and solving problems. Variety and diversity are good things.

It is my experience that most teachers quickly and informally form impressions of children’s intelligence and abilities based largely on their verbal skills/linguistic intelligence. It is important for everyone working with children with strong verbal skills to not assume that just because a student interacts well verbally that their other abilities are strong (and if they are not doing well, think that they are not trying), and not assume that a student who does not interact well verbally is not "intelligent" in other ways.

A personal example

We do not need to be "five-tool players" to feel good about ourselves and lead meaningful and successful lives. One or two strong, or even good enough, intelligences or abilities will do.

It takes me an hour or more to put together a basic store-bought bookshelf kit and I end up with my shirt off and drenched in sweat. My neighbor, the owner of a successful home construction business, built a pretty much perfect addition on my home in just a couple of months and seemed to do it with ease and pride. He never went to college. I did and now write instead of build. He is intelligent in some ways while I am intelligent in others. We are both happy and doing well.


Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences (3rd Edition). New York: Basic Books.

Wechsler, D. (2014). Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fifth Edition. New York: Pearson.