Each year 2,000 students swap their textbooks for trainers to take part in the MBA Tournament. By Chris Green

Training sessions in Regent's Park, London, are not on the MBA curriculum at Cass Business School but there is no doubt how seriously they are taken by the students. The goal is the MBA Tournament, or MBAT for short, and the strategy is total fitness.

"Early on in the year we were visited by members of last year's class, who gave us a presentation about the MBAT," says Nicolas Michaelides, 32, who represented Cass this year. "At the tournament, we stuck together as a team – a few people got injured, but that actually turned into quite a bonding point which brought people together."

Every spring, the peaceful leafy campus of HEC School of Management in the south-western Parisian suburb of Jouy-en-Josas erupts in a frenzy of activity. Formerly composed MBA students can be seen rushing around the sports pitches of the 300-acre site, barking orders down walkie-talkies.

Held over four days, the tournament comprises 24 separate events, ranging from rugby, football and basketball to ultimate frisbee, chess and salsa dancing.

Now in its 18th year, the competition regularly attracts around 2,000 MBA students from Europe's top schools. This year 15 institutions took part, some bringing more than half their student intake. But according to Valerie Gauthier, associate dean of HEC's MBA programme, the aim of the competition is not merely to glorify the winning school.

"The spirit of sport is about competition, but it's also about participation and fair play," she says. "It is this which gives the tournament its spirit. But even more than that, the development of interpersonal skills, leadership and team building are also strong points."

Gauthier says that she and her colleagues regard the annual event as a "huge part" of her school's MBA programme. The 30 or so HEC MBAs who volunteer to organise the tournament are assessed on their performance, and are awarded extra credits based on the effectiveness of their leadership and organisation.

"There's a core management team of about 12 people, but for the 10 months before the tournament takes place there are about 30 students involved, and all 200 MBA students take part in the competition itself," says Gauthier.

London Business School sent more than 200 of their students this time, which perhaps explains why they won the tournament for the third year in a row. In charge of the whole operation was 33-year-old MBA student Guri Fuglem, who started organising the trip in February. She says the effort was well worth it.

"We had people from different programmes at the school taking part, so it was a good experience from that perspective," she says. "Usually you don't get much chance to meet people outside your classes, but as we know we'll probably be future colleagues and business partners, it's great to have done something like this because it helps when you meet each other afterwards."

This sentiment is echoed by Siddharth Nambiar, who at 23 is the youngest MBA student at Oxford's Saïd Business School. He says that although he had already worked with his peers on numerous group projects throughout the year, practising and playing sport with them before taking on rival schools was a far more unifying experience – and also brought out the competitive streak in some students.

"The difference is that you see your achievements right away. There's no standing around for weeks waiting for results," he says. "I'm not big on sport, and I'm certainly not an athlete, but the rivalry and ribbing that went on when we beat London Business School at rugby was great. I think that sort of thing is only possible if you break down the barriers through sport."

Nambiar also says that he expects at least two or three potential businesses to be formed as a direct result of the tournament, as some of Europe's top MBA students traded ideas and compared their varying expertise in certain areas. Course experiences were also talked over, and hopes for the future discussed.

"There's a lot of leadership involved in the organising of the whole event," he says, "and also when it came to motivating people to come and practice and play the sports. But when you bring together so many high achievers who can already lead, you don't need to lead them."

Cass entered the competition for the second time this year, sent around 50 students and finished 11th out of 15. "The tournament is definitely fun," says Michaelides, "but MBA students are by their very nature competitive. So although a lot of it was about working as a team, having fun and meeting people from other schools, none of us wanted to lose – especially against the other London schools."